Business

Boycott of Brunei-owned businesses over gay sex death penalty expected to expand

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Businesses will likely continue to shun companies owned by Brunei, activists and consultants said, as they come under pressure to honor commitments to LGBT+ rights after the sultanate imposed the death penalty for gay sex and adultery.

Meanwhile, global oil company Shell, which has a joint venture with the Brunei government, is being urged by investors to protect LGBT+ staff working in the Muslim-majority former British protectorate.

The small Southeast Asian country sparked a global outcry when it rolled out its interpretation of Islamic laws, or sharia, on April 3, punishing sodomy, adultery and rape with death, including by stoning, and theft with amputation.

The move, which was condemned by the United Nations and the European Parliament, led actor George Clooney and singer Elton John to call for a boycott of nine hotels owned by the sultanate.

Banks, including Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Citi and Nomura, have banned staff from using the hotels, which include the Dorchester in London and the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, while numerous organizations have canceled events.

Transport for London (TfL), which is responsible for London’s transport system, removed adverts promoting Brunei as a tourism destination from the city’s public transport network last month.

STA Travel, a global travel agency, stopped selling flights on Royal Brunei Airlines, while Virgin Australia Airlines ended an agreement that offered staff discounted tickets on the national carrier.

“A lot of businesses have just looked on in horror with what’s happened,” Iain Anderson, the chairman of Cicero, a communications consultancy, and an LGBT+ activist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“As long as Brunei continues to be unbending on the issue, then I think that you’re going to see more and more companies coming out to not use Dorchester Collection hotels, or indeed other companies within the Brunei government’s ownership.”

In a letter to the United Nations last month Brunei defended the imposition of strict sharia laws, which it began introducing in 2014 but halted after a backlash, as more for “prevention than to punish.

“This particular boycott is likely to have longevity,” said Ian Johnson, head of consultancy OutNow, which works with companies on LGBT+ issues. “You’ve got very high profile voices driving mainstream opinion.”

He pointed out that since the first boycott of Dorchester Collection hotels in 2014 LGBT+ rights such as same-sex marriage have become more widespread globally, spurring more businesses to declare support for gay and trans people.

“Inclusion, diversity and equality are the foundation of Dorchester Collection,” the hotel group said in a statement last month. “Our values are far removed from the politics of ownership.”

A spokeswoman for the group declined comment further.

Anderson said there had been a huge growth in “quiet diplomacy” by companies on gay and trans issues in the last 10-15 years.

Brunei’s sharia laws have prompted more public action from companies, though.

“This is so off-the-scale egregious … that they need to be seen to act,” Anderson said.

But Shell, which touts its support for its LGBT+ employees on its website, has largely stayed quiet.

“Our core value of respect for people means that we respect all people, irrespective of gender, age, race, religion, sexual orientation and all the things that make people different,” a spokeswoman said.

The oil major would never discuss sharia law with Brunei’s government, a Shell employee who used to work in the country said.

“It’s a directive from the sultan,” the employee said. “It’s not something you try to challenge or criticise.”

Shell, which achieved a perfect score of 100 from advocacy group Human Rights Campaign on an index that rates companies on their LGBT+ policies, is nonetheless coming under pressure from investors to ensure its gay and trans staff are protected.

“It is expected from the company that they live up to their policies on inclusion and LGBT-equality, wherever they have operations,” said a spokesman for Eumedion, a Dutch group that represents investors.

“Considering the recent developments in Brunei, this issue may be put on the dialogue-agenda during our regular conversations with Shell,” he said in an emailed statement.

The spokesman emphasized that the focus of any meeting would be on protecting Shell’s workers rather than advocating for legal change in Brunei.

Robeco, a Dutch asset manager that leads Eumedion’s discussions with Shell, declined to comment.

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