The Comptroller of New York City, William Thompson, however, has just won an important agreement from one of the world’s most famous companies in extra-quick time.
The Echo reported earlier this month that the comptroller had identified six US-based companies with subsidiaries in Northern Ireland that would be pressed to comply with the MacBride Principles. The Principles aim to ensure fairness and freedom from discrimination in the workplace.
Successive comptrollers have used the financial muscle that comes with controlling the pension funds of city workers, including police officers, teachers and members of the fire department, to encourage companies towards a more progressive approach in the north.
No sooner had Thompson made the announcement than the best-known of this year’s target companies, Berkshire Hathaway, pledged that it would do all it could to implement the Principles.
Berkshire Hathaway is the massive holding company that is synonymous with its major shareholder Warren Buffett, a man who was once described by Salon.com as “the greatest stock market investor of modern times.” Berkshire Hathaway is still headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska; Buffett is nicknamed “the Oracle of Omaha.”
Berkshire Hathaway’s involvement in Northern Ireland comes through its ownership of Fruit of the Loom, the clothing manufacturer that it bought in 2001.
Fruit of the Loom had filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999. It was once a major employer in the north west of Ireland, with plants both in the Irish Republic (in Buncrana, County Donegal) and in the north (in Derry City). At its peak the company employed almost three thousand people in the region, but this has recently fallen to around 500, almost all of them in Derry, and more job losses are feared.
Nevertheless, Berkshire Hathaway’s agreement to implement the MacBride Principles is a major coup for Thompson.
In a letter to the city comptroller dated February 9 that is accessible on the comptroller’s website, Berkshire Hathaway Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Marc Hamburg wrote:
“Berkshire and its subsidiaries including FOL [Fruit of the Loom], are committed to take lawful steps in good faith to conduct business in Northern Ireland in accordance with the equal standards embodied in the MacBride principles, as Berkshire and its subsidiaries, including FOL, believe these principles are best applied to its operations, and consistent with Berkshire’s equal opportunities policies.”
Elsewhere in his letter, Hamburg also insists that “it is Berkshire’s practice and policy and the practice and policy of its subsidiaries, including FOL, to treat employees and applicants equally, without regard to, among other things, religion.”
The MacBride principles take their name from Sean MacBride, the man who first articulated them. MacBride was once chief-of-staff of the IRA. He went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with Amnesty International. The Principles cover issues such as the need to ban provocative emblems in the workplace and the desirability of setting up affirmative action programs.
The principles were outlined in 1984. Since five years after that date, successive city comptrollers have pushed for their adoption by companies in which the New York City Pension Funds have investments. At present, the funds have a total value in excess of $93bn. In the past, city comptrollers have acted despite opposition from the British government, unionists and, at times, the Irish government.
Their initiatives have nevertheless proven effective. Since the policy was first pursued, more than 90 U.S.-based companies – approximately two-thirds of those targeted – have agreed to comply with the MacBride Principles. Last year, Alberto Culver, an Illinois-based manufacturer and marketer of personal care products, agreed to urge franchise holders in Northern Ireland to implement the principles. The previous year, Coca Cola, Exxon and Marriott International did likewise.
Thompson last week welcomed the announcement from Berkshire Hathaway:
“Berkshire Hathaway has made a significant decision to ensure that discrimination is not accepted in the workplace,” he said.
“Corporations must embrace these Principles to uphold efforts that encourage tolerance and equality.”
The company’s move and the comptroller’s efforts to bring it about were also praised by New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum:
“I am proud that the New York City Pension Funds have convinced Berkshire Hathaway to take this stand for equal opportunity,” she said.
“As one of the most diverse and tolerant cities in the world, New York City should be a national leader in the fight against discrimination. Companies that benefit from our workers’ pension funds must take sufficient steps to ensure a diverse workplace and protect their minority workers from discrimination.”