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US: Biggest pension fund boycotts Wal-Mart

by Terry MacalisterThe Guardian
June 7th, 2006

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer and owner of the Asda supermarket chain, is being boycotted by the world's largest pension fund for alleged "serious and systematic" abuses of human and employment rights.

The Norwegian government said yesterday its $240bn (130bn) oil fund would no longer invest in Wal-Mart or the US mining group Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold - the latter for environmental reasons. The fund said it sold its holdings in both firms, which had been worth about $430m, at the end of last month.

"These companies are excluded because, in view of their practices, investing in them entails an unacceptable risk that the fund may be complicit in serious, systematic or gross violations of norms," said Norwegian finance minister Kristin Halvorsen in a statement.

The move raised the number of stocks excluded from the fund for what Oslo calls ethical reasons to 19 and they include the UK's biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems.

Norway has ejected companies involved in producing anti-personnel land mines, cluster bombs and nuclear weapons but Wal-Mart is believed to be the first retailer. While Freeport has been removed from the pension fund, other resources companies such as BP and Shell remain, alongside other British firms such as the music publishing group Sanctuary.

The finance ministry said it based the latest exclusions on the views of the fund's ethical council. "The recommendation to exclude Wal-Mart cites serious/systematic violations of human rights and labour rights. The recommendation to exclude Freeport is based on serious environmental damage," the ministry said.

Wal-Mart did not respond to questions about the decision but Freeport denied it had done anything wrong and said the Norwegians had misunderstood its position. Shares in both firms fell, Wal-Mart's by 0.5% and Freeport's by 1%.

The ministry said the council had found "an extensive body of material" that indicated Wal-Mart had broken norms, including employing minors in breach of international rules, allowing hazardous working conditions at many suppliers and blocking workers' efforts to form unions.

It listed other alleged Wal-Mart abuses including putting pressure on employees to work overtime without compensation, discriminating against women in pay terms and blocking "all attempts to unionise".

It said Wal-Mart "employees are in a number of cases unreasonably punished and locked in".

The council's report looked at Wal-Mart's operations in the United States and Canada. It also reviewed the position of the retailer's suppliers in countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and China.

The ministry said Freeport used a natural river system for disposal of tailings from a huge copper mine in New Guinea.

Freeport spokesman William Collier said the tailings were not toxic. "They did contact us," he said of the fund's managers. "We told them all this, and we feel it reflects a misunderstanding."





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