Glencore’s Casino Trial: A Tragi-comic affair

By Andy Whitmore, London Mining Network

Glencore held its Annual General Meeting in the Theater-Casino in the sleepy Swiss lake-side town of Zug on 2 May. I have been to many major mining company AGMs over the years in London, but this was my first foray to a Swiss Canton to try to hold a mining multinational to account.

In many ways things were very familiar. The format of the meeting was of course identical, the mix of wealthy shareholders and concerned citizens attending very similar, and the fact the meeting was held almost entirely in English (with some German translation) reinforced the international nature of such affairs.

However, it had of course some of its own unique (fondue?) flavour. Naturally, there was the standard mining AGM protest outside. It was made up of global trade unionists from IndustriALL, who had travelled to the AGM as part their global campaign against Glencore (and whom I was accompanying). We joined Swiss citizens, some from NGOs and some from the Green Party, with a panoply of various banners and chants, as well as filming and photography. More than once someone commented on the megaphone how noteworthy it was that Glencore should hold its AGM in a casino, given it exemplified casino capitalism.

Inside the grand hall of the Theater-Casino, I was surprised how relatively few attendees there were. There were maybe a couple of hundred shareholders for this giant company. In a way it is understandable, as travelling to Zug is not easy for many international investors. Yet, it is still quite shocking, especially given how many IndustriALL members and critics were there. The vast bulk of the audience seemed to be non-corporate shareholders, primarily there for the quality nibbles sent out on silver platters once the business was done. Many were audibly rude about the critics of the company, both outside and inside, effectively referring to us as the ‘great unwashed’.

That theme of rudeness seemed to follow through to the chair of the meeting, Tony Hayward. It is a surprise that Tony is still there, given he was meant to be a temporary chair after the Xstrata merger / takeover. It may well be that he has survived as he has allowed CEO Ivan Glasenberg to carry on doing whatever he wants to do. It is not for the friendly manner with which he chairs AGMs. A German colleague noted that he exuded English arrogance. He spent most of the meeting batting away genuine concerns with the sort of teflon nonchalance that was no doubt tempered at his time at BP. In contrast Ivan himself was surprisingly mundane in his public oration, mumbling quickly through his presentation and speaking far less than his relative power within the company surely deserves.

As I sat looking at the pair of them on the stage, with the obligatory standard silent board members flanking them, my eyes couldn’t help rising above them. I spotted a frieze with the words ‘comoedia’ and ‘tragoedia’ written on it. It seemed to sum up to me much of what was happening. Tragic because there were questions about the company’s devastating impacts on workers and the local communities, and comic because of the continual rosy gloss being liberally pasted on by the chair and CEO.

A good example was in the subject of worker deaths. The company had a totally unacceptable nine fatalities last year. Whereas many other companies would have done what Glencore did in pointing out it was an improvement (from an even worst 16 in 2016), I’ve seen none go on to stress how many employees and contractors they employ, so it wasn’t that bad in retrospect. It is still nine deaths when you have an ambition of zero fatalities.

That theme of excuses and belittling continued through much of the questioning. Problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the new mining code? No problem, they are in constructive engagement. Criticism from representatives of workers regarding health and safety conditions at a mine? There are no problems there, and the chair has visited to make sure. Critique of allowing anti-union intimidation? Nothing to do with us; people can join unions voluntarily (or indeed not if there is intimidation, but that was essentially ignored). This continued in a similar vein for question after question.

A comic suggestion came up in discussions of executive remuneration, where it was noted that Mr Glasenberg was note part of an incentive plan. The chair remarked he didn’t need to as he was the second largest shareholder in the company, so he had enough incentive already (or he is simply rich enough depending on your point of view). Mr Hayward suggested this was a great example to other companies. Really? To have the CEO virtually own, as well as run, the company? In a Glencore world I suppose it is.

In many ways they were lucky they didn’t get more awkward questions given current difficulties. Nobody mentioned Dan Gertler (where the company has won a temporary injunction against the Israeli billionaire over alleged unpaid royalties he said he is owed by the company) or Rusal (where Glencore is one of the biggest shareholders in the aluminium company, which has been subject to US sanctions care of its owner Oleg Deripaska, with Glasenberg resigning from Rusal’s board).

However, the one ray of hope was the shareholder who got up to say how concerned he was about the litany of problems that were coming up in questions. He said “if only 1% was true I would be worried”. His criticisms, that Hayward seemed to be trivialising the issues in his blanket dismissals, got the only spontaneous round of applause at the meeting. Hayward, who of course was trivialising them, denied any such actions, and – of course – assured him how seriously he took them. I was reminded of watching Tony Blair when he was at his best (or worst depending on your point of view).

And so, surprisingly quickly, we were done, and it was time for the canapés. I was impressed how swiftly Tony Hayward exited stage-left, surrounded by a number of burly, suited security guards. Perhaps the snacks didn’t agree with him, but more likely he was just relieved it was all over for another year. Glencore has historically excelled at trying to hide from public scrutiny, despite – or more likely because of – the risks it takes. It is getting harder to do, but they still seem adept at it.

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