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Business resists pressure over its Zimbabwe links

September 2008

Several large companies operating in Zimbabwe have declined to sign a voluntary agreement drawn up by the UK government on upholding human rights in the African country.

Sixteen businesses were approached over the summer by ministers worried that the UK-based firms might find themselves ‘complicit in human rights abuses’ – by being forced to discriminate against foes of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe – and so damage the UK’s international standing.

The businesses have not been named, but Anglo American and Barclays are believed to have been among them. Last month the government acknowledged that it had put an ‘optional ethical code’ on Zimbabwe to the 16 firms, but that there had been no support.

Before the parliamentary recess, prime minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons that businesses ‘should look at their involvement in Zimbabwe’ and ‘reconsider their position’ if their investments might be helping the regime. However, the firms argued that their presence in Zimbabwe is a positive factor amid the upheaval.

One company, Tesco, which had previously resisted calls to reduce its involvement, has now announced that it will stop sourcing Zimbabwean products – valued at £1million ($1.86m) a year – while ‘the political crisis persists’. The retailer has said it will look at helping the 4000 workers affected.

However, other companies are standing firm. Barclays, which has been in the country for around 100 years, said it did not want to make the situation worse for its 135,000 customers there by cutting their access to banking facilities.

Supermarket chain Waitrose said that although it supported efforts to restore democracy in Zimbabwe, ‘we believe our limited relationships with two Zimbabwean suppliers actually enhance these efforts rather than undermine them’. Anglo American has announced that it will not suspend development of the Unki platinum mine in Zimbabwe, due to go into production in two years. ‘It is certainly not clear that it would be a net gain for human rights if we were to abandon the 650 people who work at Unki, their dependents and the surrounding communities,’ it said.

Noel Morrin, senior vice president of sustainability at Swedish construction company Skanska, which takes a strong line on not working in areas where there are human rights problems, nonetheless said his personal view on Zimbabwe was that ‘companies with access to grassroots business activities among downtrodden local communities are probably best advised to stay until the regime finally collapses – provided they can show that what they do directly benefits communities’.

US and EU sanctions against Zimbabwe only affect business being done with named associates of Mugabe.

see editorial




UK & NI Ireland | Human rights

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