Tag Archives: ShareAction

Building momentum for the Living Wage at Persimmon Homes

I was shaking so much that I needed to hold onto the chair in front of me to keep my voice steady. I could feel myself getting hotter and more flustered. I needed to gather my thoughts.living wage logo

What terrible fate was about to befall me? Nothing less than the shareholders of Persimmon Homes responding to my question at their AGM about the Living Wage! I’d gone off script from my carefully prepared notes and for a moment I couldn’t bring the words on the page to order. But there was no hostile reaction, only kind patience. I found my place, and supported by the written word, I laid out my arguments before the board.

We’d already had a lively discussion about the remuneration package due to the board, but had the board considered pay at the bottom of the scale? In the light of the company’s skills shortage, would it consider implementing a Living Wage? Why had it not responded to a letter about this matter from ShareAction and other investors representing £40million in assets? Would the company be prepared to discuss this further with ShareAction and the Living Wage Foundation?

The chair, Nicholas Wrigley, gave a fair answer to my question. Yes, the board had considered the Living Wage. He thought they had responded to correspondence about the matter, but would look into it to make sure. They had reviewed their policy around wages, and in particular, wanted to bring more people in house and rely less on sub-contractors. But finding they were compliant with the new Government minimum wage, they felt this was enough. This was a predictable course of wage increases which they could plan for, whereas the trajectory of the Living Wage would be uncertain.

I was feeling much more confident by now, and I’d remembered to keep hold of the microphone. As the Living Wage is based on the cost of living, by not implementing it, Persimmon Homes was just passing on the uncertainty to their staff who have to deal with cost of living rises. Did Persimmon not have a responsibility to their employees? The chair assured me that they took the welfare of their workforce very seriously and were considered to be a caring employer. This includes aiming to use fewer subcontractors, establishing more apprenticeships and a ‘Combat to Construction’ scheme helping ex-service personnel find employment.

After the meeting concluded, I approached the chair and the rest of the board on the top table. Nicholas Wrigley was keen to assure me that wages and the Living Wage were constantly under review. I had the chance to explain a little more about how the Living Wage is calculated, and suggest that more discussion with ShareAction and the Living Wage Foundation might help them understand better how it works. Jeff Fairburn, CEO, said he would talk to his HR director, Richard Latham, and agreed that a conversation with the Living Wage Foundation would be helpful. He also said that he thought a response to a letter on this matter had been sent. I was able to give him a copy of the letter sent last year, with the name and address for the reply highlighted. I’m confident that Persimmon will now respond to ShareAction about the Living Wage.

The CEO agreed to let me take a selfie with him in it, much to the amusement of the board, especially when I said I was going to tweet it! And then it was all over. It felt good to be back in the bar with a glass of wine in my hand!

So there you have it – a day in the life of a foot soldier in the AGM army. It’s quite a buzz! I wasn’t on the frontline on my own. The AGM was at York racecourse, and I attended with a colleague who lives in York, so I could rely on her for logistics and note-taking. The racecourse is a great venue, and representatives of the company were very helpful and friendly before the meeting – we were there as shareholders after all. And even after putting them on the spot with our question, we were treated with courtesy and respect. There’s nothing like bringing the issue out into public right in the heart of the business in question. I’m intrigued by what the other shareholders thought – no-one approached us afterwards. But I’m confident of a response from Persimmon and looking forward to another conversation soon!

I attended this AGM as a proxy shareholder for ShareAction. My blog also appears on their website, where you can find out more about the AGM army!

Calling to Account

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Last Friday it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I posted on this blog a few months ago about a campaign training event I went to with ShareAction and Christian Aid. If we have shares in a company, directly or via pension funds, then the company is investing our money, and we have the right to hold them to account. I previously wrote about a campaign to challenge pension fund managers, but the training also dealt with attending a company AGM to ask a question as a shareholder.

So, on Friday, I found myself, standing at the podium, as a corporate representative for ShareAction, ready to ask a question at the RSA AGM. My heart was thumping and my knees were shaking, but my voice was steady and the room was listening.

RSA is an insurance company, better known as More Than for personal insurance. They’ve had a bad year, making as big a loss last year as their profit the year before. There was a lot of hostility in the room towards the board from shareholders who had seen their dividend disappear. I’d expected to be intimidated by the board, but it was clearly the board which was on the defensive.

Louise, who came with me from ShareAction, had met me outside the trendy building in Central London, prepared all the paperwork, including the question, and filled me in on the company background. We signed in and then registered our questions. We already got a positive response from the team registering questions to our plan to ask the company about its tax arrangements. “I hope you get a good answer”, we were told. As a veteran of these occasions, Louise made me feel at home, and introduced me to another AGM campaigner preparing to challenge the company about its poor performance.

I asked my question about the company’s business in places used as tax havens, wanting to know if RSA had substantial business there, or just used them for tax minimisation purposes. Despite identifying the need for transparency, and the risk to the business of a tax avoidance scandal, the best answer RSA could offer was that it complies with all appropriate tax law. I tried to follow up suggesting that the issue was about more than compliance, but the board hid behind the need to manage their taxes for the benefit of the shareholder. Louise asked about climate change, but also followed up my question for me, eventually getting the board to admit that some of these subsidiaries were there for “corporate purposes”.

It was good to be able to directly ask a company whether they were using tax havens. I wasn’t sure how much difference this would make to the company’s actual behaviour, but Louise seemed to think that the evasive answering indicated that RSA was embarrassed by our question. Asking questions at an AGM is not going change things over night. It is one campaigning tool among many, aiming to raise awareness of issues with companies which might not otherwise consider these things, putting things like tax and climate change higher up the agenda, chipping away at accepted norms.

Would I do it again? Yes! Fitting in a trip to London has its own challenges, but there’s always the free lunch! Next time I’ll bring a bigger bag, as snaffling a couple of napkins full of flapjacks and brownies would seem to be the order of the day.

 

 

Investing in a greener future

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I’ve just come back from a great day in Leeds with Christian Aid, at a training event for campaigning, and I’m feeling inspired and energised. What was the hot topic that has got me so excited? Pensions! Yes, really!

So what is the connection between pensions and Christian Aid campaigning? Pensions are all about investing for the future. We put money aside now and hope to see a return that will provide for us in our old age. But in the meantime, our money is already hard at work. Through our pension funds, we are the shareholders of the companies on the stock exchange. It isn’t just any old money which makes the world go round, it is our money! If we add to this an ethical perspective, we might want to make some other choices about where we invest. For example, we might decide that we don’t want to invest in a company which sells weapons. It might also be rather nice if our money was working for good, perhaps for a pharmaceutical firm developing a cure for malaria.

But so far, this is going over old ground, exploring decisions lots of us have made if we’ve tried to find ethical investment funds. The real epiphany of the day was to consider how our pension is an investment in our future in more ways than the pay-out when we retire. If our money was used by that pharmaceutical company to find a cure for cancer or an effective treatment for dementia, that really would be an investment for our old age. There is almost £3trillion invested in UK pensions – this inconceivably large sum of money has huge potential, but the question is, what kind of future is it being used to build?

Climate change is the most significant challenge of our time. Humanity’s response to this challenge will determine what kind of future we and our children will face. So how can pension funds invest in and for the future? Clearly, I’d like my money to be used to fund renewable energy rather than fossil fuel. But I’d not considered the need for pensions to be invested in companies that will be resilient in the face of the degree of climate change likely to have happened by the time I retire. Also needed is investment in ways to prevent or at least adapt to climate change, like energy-efficient technology, green infrastructure, a low-carbon economy.

This is our money, and it has enormous potential for good or for ill. Today was all about unlocking that potential, and Christian Aid have teamed up with ShareAction to enable pension savers to have in say in where and how their money is invested. They have launched a new campaign called the Green Light campaign. Anyone with a pension invested in shares can follow the links on the website to email their pension fund to find out its carbon footprint. They have also prepared a reportresilient portfolios in an uncertain world” with research and recommendations for pension fund managers. The idea is to encourage funds to invest in greener businesses, but also to get funds to use their power as shareholders to direct businesses away from high-emissions activity, such as drilling for oil in the Arctic. We don’t have to be helpless bystanders in world dominated by corporate power.

I believe people have a God-given responsibility to care for this planet and its people, and not to just exploit its resources. I have bigger questions about money, power and capitalism, but I also think that sometimes we have to work with the system we’ve got. I think this could be a really effective tool in the campaigning toolkit and I’ll be contacting my pension provider. I’d encourage you to follow the link to the ShareAction campaign and contact yours! I’ll finish with words from p7 of the Green Light campaign report:

“This is a different kind of climate campaign. Its focus on pension funds will unlock the power of the trillions invested in them to fund a greener, fairer future. In doing so, we aim to protect our pensions and our planet. We hope you’ll join with us, as citizen saver or civil society organisation, as we push our pension funds to get climate-conscious.”