Robinson-Sweet: Divest from HEI now

Two and a half years ago Jose Landino, an employee of the Long Beach Hilton, came to Yale and spoke to an audience of over 150 students. He came to tell us about how his employer, a hotel management company called HEI, was engaged in a nasty anti-union campaign against its workers. Mr. Landino flew across the country to speak to us because Yale, with an investment of over $120 million in HEI, had the power to change the working conditions for him and hundreds of his co-workers across the country: “The employees of the Long Beach Hilton are suffering a persecution. I come here and ask you for help so that I can go back and tell my workmates that there will be help.”

Two and a half years later Mr. Landino is still overworked, underpaid and without union representation. Unfortunately, Yale’s ongoing investment with HEI has financially fueled a company that does not respect the basic rights of its workers. It is hard to see why this should be the case, seeing as Yale has a clear process for dealing with unethical investments such as HEI.

Members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, in an ongoing campaign for divestment from HEI, followed this process by engaging with the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The UOC presented reports on HEI’s abuses at five separate meetings with the ACIR. In June of 2009 the UOC received an e-mail from the ACIR explaining why they would not be sending a letter to HEI expressing concern with their labor practices. They gave a number of reasons for their inaction, chief among which that there had been no legal complaints filed against the company. To date there have been at least four complaints filed by or on behalf of workers against HEI, including three complaints issued by the National Labor Relations Board’s Office of the General Counsel. In November, a deputy commissioner of the Virginia Workers Compensation Board signed a stipulated order requiring the company and its insurer to pay a worker approximately $10,000 in workers compensation benefits owed to him. As of today, this worker has yet to receive the money.

Now that the ACIR has this damning information, they should act. The committee’s newest excuse is particularly insulting to the hundreds of workers that suffer everyday in HEI hotels. Jonathan Macey, chairman of the ACIR, explained in an open meeting in January that the committee would not feel comfortable singling one company out for practices that are common to many hotel companies. HEI is the only hotel company that Yale is known to invest in and therefore the only case that the ACIR has the opportunity to act on. Mr. Macey’s excuse not only condones worker abuse in the hotel industry but also guts the ACIR of its power to influence the responsibility of Yale’s investments.

The ACIR’s current inaction is particularly embarrassing in light of Brown University’s decision this month not to reinvest in HEI. This peer university has become a leader in ethical investing, a position Yale used to occupy proudly. Mr. Macey’s response to this development was quoted in this paper last week: “Either Brown has information that we don’t have, or I find this to be an extremely perplexing development about what it takes to influence Brown’s decisions.” The ACIR should not be able to push this issue under the table by claiming ignorance on the one hand and superior judgment on the other. Jose Landino and his co-workers have been fighting for respect for over two years, and Yale students will be standing with them.

Anna Robinson-Sweet is a senior in Davenport College and a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

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