07 March 2014
2 min read

Transfield Services has been awarded a highly controversial $1.2 billion contract by the Australian government to provide garrison and welfare services over a 20-month period at Australia's offshore refugee processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Australia's treatment of asylum seekers has received widespread media attention in light of violent riots at the Manus detention centre which led to the death of a 23-year-old Iranian refugee Reza Berati.

The government’s lack of transparency and the role of private companies as welfare provider, for the refugees who find themselves in these detention centres, has led to a strong and emotionally charged response from the public. A number of vigils were held across the country in recognition of the life lost, and the shared public opinion that the mandatory detention of asylum seekers is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights.

Biennale of Sydney and Transfield

The issue has consequently become focused on the highly anticipated Biennale of Sydney, a hugely popular and world-renowned arts festival that has been sponsored by Transfield for many years.

Transfield and its foundation have been supporters of Biennale since the festival’s inception, providing around 40% of the sponsorship money. However, this year’s event has been marred by controversy with five artists, as a mark of solidarity, officially pulling out of the event. In addition, a wider group of artists have written to the Biennale board claiming the current partnership is adding cultural capital, and thus value, to the Transfield brand – therefore participation is an active endorsement of the existing approach to detention. They write: “We see our participation in the Biennale as an active link in a chain of associations that leads to the abuse of human rights. For us, this is undeniable and indefensible.” You can read their letter in its entirety here.

The board of Biennale has since stated that they do not intend to sever ties with their long standing partner. The issue of corporate sponsorship is a complex one and circumstances such as this illustrate the potential for the public and smaller groups to advocate for change. We have had a number of enquires over the last week regarding our approach to investment in Transfield and detention centres in general, from individuals looking to divest from companies involved in these actvities.

Australian Ethical’s approach to detention centres

All our investments are screened in alignment with the Australian Ethical Charter, which governs both the positive investments we seek out and the ones we avoid.

In relation to human rights, the Australian Ethical Charter states that we shall avoid any investment which is considered to unnecessarily:

  • extract, create, produce, manufacture, or market materials, products, goods or services which have a harmful effect on humans, non-human animals or the environment
  • contribute to the inhibition of human rights generally

Following the recent incident at Manus Island, Australian Ethical conducted a thorough review of our portfolio – we’re happy to confirm that to the best of our knowledge, we have no investments in companies directly associated with mandatory detention centres.

The corporate web of ownership and supply chains means that this kind of research is challenging, however. As an example, we invest in Seek, a recruitment website that assists people find work and employers find staff. We have identified that Seek’s site has been used by service companies to advertise jobs for detention centre cleaning staff. After some deliberation, we’ve decided that Seek’s involvement does not constitute the support of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

For more information in the companies we invest in, you can view a list of the companies we invest in.

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