Union Money and Detention Centres

16 June 2015

Late last year, the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) University of Melbourne Branch joined several other branches in successfully pressuring their superannuation fun, UniSuper, to withdraw investments from Transfield. Transfield is a publically listed company that has been managing Australia’s detention centres on Manus and Nauru since entering a $1.22 billion contract in January 2014. NTEU members’ ethical concerns towards UniSuper’s financial partnership with Transfield were heightened by events that cast doubt on the their ability to protect asylum seekers’ safety-particularly the February 2014 Manus Island riots, in which local Papua New Guineans and security guards attacked protesting detainees, leading to the death of an Iranian asylum seeker-Reza Barati.

Calls from NTEU members for UniSuper to withdraw shares in corporations profiting from the government’s’ offshore processing system begun in March 2014 with the University of Sydney Branch motioning for “UniSuper not to invest in firms that collaborate with the Australian Government in the mandatory detention regime.” This was followed by a spate of other NTEU councils across Australia passing similar motions.

Requests for UniSuper to divest from Transfield initially fell on deaf ears, with UniSuper releasing a statement to its members alleging that Transfield “demonstrates a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility” and claiming that “the company undertook a full risk assessment prior to tendering for the Manus Island contract.”

However, as the campaign for UniSuper to divest from Transfield gained broader support throughout the union’s membership, the demands became harder for the board to brush off. As NTEU University of Melbourne Division Secretary Colin Long has explained “all our branches voted to support a motion put by the Deakin Branch to our National Council meeting in October last year… Super Funds can sometimes be quite responsive to members’ protests.”

The campaign for Superannuation funds’ to act on members’ opposition to their participation in the detention of asylum seekers is not confined to the NTEU. A number of unions across Australia have been calling on their superfunds to withdraw investments from the major profiteers of the Manus and Nauru facilities, such as the Australian Services Union which have also called on their Superannuation fund Hesta to divest from Transfield.

Reflecting on the extent to which superannuation funds divesting from companies managing detention centres actually poses a threat to the nation’s immigration policies, Colin Long remarks “whether the obsessive cruelty and racism of the Federal Government can be challenged by such an action is unclear.” Nonetheless, she still stresses that “divestment is an important way to point out that companies like Transfield profit from this misery and should be condemned.”

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