Qantas, Virgin targeted over role in refugee repatriation
The groups will use the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – which says companies should avoid complicity in human rights abuse – to call on Qantas to cease all transport and forced deportation of asylum seekers and refugees.
They have also taken aim at Virgin Australia, which also carries asylum seekers for the government, calling on its to follow the lead of its British sister brand Virgin Atlantic and pledge not to accept passengers being involuntary deported.
Several US airlines including American and United have in recent months refused to transport children who had been separated from their parents detained by US immigration authorities.
Ms O’Brien said Qantas and its investors should consider the financial damage asylum seeker advocates inflicted on the detention centre operator Transfield in a campaign that led some major superannuation groups selling their shares in the company (which later changed its name to Broadspectrum).
“Reputational risk, even to the value of their brand, is financial risk,” she said.
A Qantas spokesman said: “The government and courts are best placed to make decisions on the legal immigration status of individuals seeking to remain in Australia, not airlines.”
The government and courts are best placed to make decisions on the legal status of individuals seeking to remain in Australia, not airlines.
A Virgin Australia spokeswoman said the airline transported people on behalf of a number of government organisations for “a range of reasons” and complied with Australian immigration law.
Virgin would “take advice on this matter from the relevant authorities”, she said.
Left-wing lobby group GetUp! has also thrown its support behind the ACCR’s push.
“Deporting people to danger should not be a part of the Qantas business model,” said Shen Narayanasamy, GetUp!’s human rights director.
The ACCR is canvassing Qantas shareholders to co-sign a resolution to lodge at its annual general meeting later this year that would force the company to detail the risks presented by its involvement in the flights and how it is managing those risks.
Ms O’Brien said there was interest from some institutional investors in the resolution, but declined to name them. Any special resolution is unlikely to pass, as it would need the backing of 75 per cent of Qantas shareholders.
But activists are increasingly using that tactic to raise and pursue action from companies on environmental and ethical issues with some success – not withstanding complaints from some in the business community that they are a waste of time and a distraction for boards.
Almost 10 per cent of BHP shareholders voted in favour of an ACCR Resolution questioning the mining giant’s funding of the Minterals Council of Australia. The action led BHP to review its membership of the MCA and put pressure on the lobby group over its position on climate change.
Another ACCR resolution targeting Woolworths attracted support from several super funds, but was withdrawn before its 2017 AGM after the supermarket promised to increase human rights auditing in its food supply chain.
The push against Qantas and Virgin’s involvement in deportation has also gained the backing of former Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, prominent businesswoman Janet Holmes à Court, Human Rights Watch, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and a raft of human rights lawyers and responsible investment experts.
“Any business that is concerned with protecting its brand should not be implementing the refugee policies of the Australian government,” Ms Holmes a Court said.
Qantas has hit the headlines previously over its involvement in deportation. In 2015 a number of passengers either delayed or asked to leave a flight taking a Sri Lankan man who had been refused asylum to Darwin ahead of being deported. At least one person who walked off that flight later found themselves blacklisted from Qantas.