Like many companies in the modern media age, Transfield may soon realise that doing bad things is bad business, and its operation of the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres will continue to face scrutiny, writes Michael Bradley.The rules of engagement are changing. As with the political establishment and mainstream media, corporations are only slowly realising that business as usual isn’t what it used to be.
The interesting point of intersection, between the institutions of the status quo and the uncontrollable new world of grass roots activism powered by digital media, is the assertion of a new morality into a landscape where it has been largely absent for several hundred years.
Consider these recent events on an increasing scale of gravity. A Brisbane JB HiFi store refused entry to a customer with Down syndrome, based on mistaken identity. The story went immediately viral and JB HiFi apologised and promised to review its policies. Do a Google search on JB HiFi today, and this story fills your screen.
7-Eleven is in all sorts at the moment, after revelations that it has been at least tolerating if not facilitating a systemic scam among its franchisees of underpaying their largely immigrant workforce by under-reporting their hours. The only constraint on that story blowing sky-high is the fear among employees of being deported for breaching their visa conditions if they blow the whistle.
US pharmaceutical company Turing recently bought the rights to a 62-year-old medicine that treats toxoplasmosis (a common side effect of HIV/AIDS) and immediately raised the retail price from $US13.50 to $US750 per pill. It took a day of social media outrage, including a Hilary Clinton tweet, for the company to backtrack and say it would be reducing the price again.
At the far end of the scale, the 78-year-old automotive giant Volkswagen has just admitted that it sold 11 million diesel cars worldwide with software designed specifically to cheat pollution emission tests, pursuant to what can only have been a deliberate scheme of fraudulent deception tacitly endorsed at the highest levels of the company.
Somewhere along the scale of corporate amorality sits Transfield, which operates the two offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru for the Government. Transfield is desperately trying to fight off a new form of existential threat that goes well beyond the damage many companies have suffered at the hands of social media in recent years.
A group called No Business In Abuse* has been actively targeting Transfield’s responsibility for what’s been happening at Manus and Nauru through a campaign that includes “moving super funds away from harmful investments”. NBIA’s website says:
We’ll make that rejection hit home, by drying up their potential investor and client market. Hundreds of us will start petitions targeting strategic businesses and institutions, asking them to pledge never to contract with companies like Transfield, unless they clean up their act.
As a public company listed on the stock exchange, Transfield is owned by traditionally disinterested investors, including super funds and other financial institutions.
NBIA seeks to harness the voice of “tens of thousands of individual Australians” to send a “loud and clear message to corporations like Transfield: being complicit in abuse has consequences”.
Transfield’s response has been assertive. It distributed a lengthy response to NBIA’s allegations, noting its own commitment to respecting human rights while also noting that as a private company it is not bound by any international human rights instruments (such as the conventions on torture and the rights of children).
It says that investigations have shown no evidence to support the majority of allegations of human rights abuses in its centres, quotes approvingly the dissenting minority opinion of the recent Senate Select Committee inquiry and asserts that “much of (NBIA’s) source data regarding conditions at Manus and Nauru is based on outdated public information, and is therefore incorrect”.
For its part, NBIA points to successive findings by independent bodies that dreadful things are happening on Manus and Nauru. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees made such findings in 2013 and, in April this year, reported to the Senate inquiry that the centre at Nauru does not provide safe and humane conditions and that “the harsh conditions, lack of privacy for individuals, uncertainty regarding durable solutions remain largely unchanged”. It maintained its view that no child should be transferred to or kept at Nauru.
The Senate Select Committee’s majority report is damning. It found that the Nauru centre is not a safe environment for asylum seekers, particularly women, children and other vulnerable persons and that no children should be held there. It also found that the Immigration Department is not in a position to guarantee that any aspect of the Nauru centre is run well and that there is cause for ongoing concern about the performance and accountability of its contractors (Transfield).
Transfield is intent on pursuing an old school crisis management strategy: deny wrongdoing, assert absence of legal obligation while claiming pure motivation, point to gaps in the evidence and selectively quote the favourable bits, impugn the accusers’ credibility and wait for the noise to subside, then get back to business.
In the end, what Transfield is banking on is that both the Coalition and ALP will continue to allow it to operate under the shroud of operational secrecy and help it limit public access to the truth, combined with the conspiracy of wilful ignorance that the Australian populace continues to share about the treatment of asylum seekers.
That’s a tenuous form of security, because the reality of Manus and Nauru will continue to leak out and it is utterly appalling.
The genius of the corporate structure is that it allows all participants – directors, employees, investors (and investors in those investors) – to operate in a moral vacuum when it comes to the physical actions the entity undertakes. Those actions are no individual’s responsibility, and so really dreadful things can be done without anyone at any point of the profit chain saying “stop, this is wrong”. When the truth about Volkswagen and 7-Eleven comes out, we’ll see that that’s exactly what happened there.
Transfield’s current experience is illustrating the vulnerability in this chain of amorality, which the new age of instantaneous democratised media is enabling. Corporations aren’t familiar with that degree of externally applied pressure, but they’d better get used to it.
*Disclaimer: Marque Lawyers has provided legal advice to NBIA’s partner organisation GetUp.
Editor‘s note (September 24, 2015): NBIA wishes to clarify that in the publication of this article Michael Bradley does not represent NBIA.
Editor’s note (September 25, 2015): To clarify and better reflect the aims of NBIA, we have substituted some passages in the original article with quotations from the NBIA website.
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