Glencore and Feminism

By Sarah Duff

Last week, Glencore was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Valued at $61 billion, the secretive, Swiss-based commodity group’s decision to go public caused a flurry of interest, and not only in commodities markets.

So why should feminists care? Shortly before the flotation, Simon Murray, Glencore’s chairman, gave an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He said:

‘Women are quite as intelligent as men. They have a tendency not to be so involved quite often and they’re not so ambitious in business as men because they’ve got better things to do. Quite often they like bringing up their children and all sorts of other things.’

He added:

‘All these things have unintended consequences. Pregnant ladies have nine months off. Do you think that means when I rush out, what I’m absolutely desperate to have is young women who are about to get married in my company, and that I really need them on board because I know they’re going to get pregnant and they’re going to go off for nine months?’

These comments would be appalling under any circumstances, but coming from a man in charge of one of the most powerful businesses in the world, these are frightening views. Glencore specialises in the trade of raw materials (commodities, in other words) relating primarily to mining and energy. An enormous business, it has a controlling stake in the zinc, lead, copper, and alumina markets. Just think of all the lead and copper in the world (that’s a lot of lead and copper) – and that one company, Glencore, has the most say in how they’re traded.

But it gets more worrying: Glencore also has interests in agriculture. It controls about a quarter of the world’s barley, sunflower and rape seed markets, and 10% of the global wheat market. We’re currently in the midst of a spike in food prices and it seems that Glencore may have played a role in causing them to jump. Raj Patel explains:

In the weeks before flotation, Glencore allowed us a glimpse of the kind of power it wields. Last year Russia, the world’s third largest wheat exporter, experienced a drought the like of which had never been recorded; fires damaged tens of thousands of acres of cereal.

Glencore has now revealed its traders placed bets that the price of wheat would go up. On 2 August Glencore’s head of Russian grain trading called on Russia’s government to ban wheat exports. Three days later, that’s what it did. The price of wheat went up by 15% in two days. Of course, just because a senior executive at one of the world’s most powerful companies suggested a course of action that a country chose to follow doesn’t mean Glencore made it happen. But happen it did, and the consequences rippled round the world.

At the time, Mozambique experienced a massive uprising in response to increased food and fuel prices. Protests were organised via text messages and, in actions that foreshadowed those of governments in the Arab spring, the Mozambican state responded by shutting down text capability for pre-paid phones and sweeping up hundreds of protesters. Over a dozen people died, many were injured, and millions of dollars of damage was caused. It’s safe to say that tens of thousands were pushed further towards hunger as a result of the higher wheat prices.

Six months later, the Arab world exploded. In simple terms, Glencore seems to be willing to do just about anything to make a profit: regardless if it means causing widespread political instability and contributing to world hunger. Even if this were not the case, the fact that Glencore controls so much of commodity markets means that there is little anyone or anything can do control commodity prices. If they continue to rise, so do interest rates all over the world.

What Glencore does has an impact on all of us. They influence the price of food – and bread in particular – and have a say in the functioning of our economy. The board of Glencore has, then, an influence over our lives which rivals – possibly exceeds – that of elected officials. If Simon Murray were in public office, there’s a strong chance that he’d be punished in some way for his remarks about women in business. But as the head of an extremely powerful business, he can get away with them.

This is why we need feminism.

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