An Australian union representing cleaners at Westfield malls shelved strike action in favour of a worldwide sweep through the global retail giant’s books. Now it’s shopping reports of company tax avoidance in the US, UK and Australia.
For two years the giant Westfield shopping-centre group refused to countenance demands to back a modest pay rise for some 1,700 people who clean its Australian shopping malls.
The traditional, stereotypical union response to such a deadlock might have been to pull the cleaners out. Instead, the relevant union, United Voice, determined to put more “cleaners” in.
They put the accounting cleaners through Westfield across three continents, focusing on the tax practices of the Australian-based multinational in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The tactic has not – at least not yet – seen the union’s members get their pay rise. But it sure has shone a light on dubious aspects of Westfield’s corporate behaviour.
The union, and its associates and agents here, in the US, and the UK, have compiled evidence of tax dodging on an epic scale.
In the United States in 2012 alone, according to the union, Westfield paid some US$116 million less in property tax than it should have.
In the UK, according to its analysis, the company paid less than £500,000 on revenue of some £2.7 billion over 10 years.
We need to stress here that tax avoidance is not illegal. But it is of immense concern to governments all over the world that a rising tide of corporate tax dodging is seeing literally trillions of dollars go substantially untaxed as companies shift profits to jurisdictions where rates are lowest, and shift costs to jurisdictions where they are highest.
You may be aware of the brouhaha in Britain over tax avoidance by the likes of Google, Amazon and Starbucks. You may also be aware of the US Congress’s recent jousting with Apple over its elaborate structures, which leave billions of its income untaxed there or anywhere else in the world.
As previously noted by The Global Mail, a report done for the Uniting Church’s Justice and International Mission earlier this year found a majority of Australia’s Top 100 companies now make use of subsidiaries in tax havens.
And Westfield was one of the biggest users of tax havens; the Uniting Church found that the Australian company has 54 subsidiaries in Jersey and one each in Luxembourg and Singapore.
The union’s more detailed analyses of the tax affairs of Westfield around the world found many more: of 110 known Westfield subsidiaries in the United States, 84 are registered in the tax-haven state of Delaware, it says.
And the union and its allied civil-society groups are not done yet. A further, more detailed report on Westfield’s property-tax situation in the US is imminent. They are talking to pension funds and other investors and potential investors about the group’s tax activities. AND they are moving on to look at the company’s environmental record.
You’ve got to admit, it’s a far cry from the old means by which organised labour attempted to deal with business. What it is, is a textbook study in the new ways that all kinds of groups – not just unions – are now pressuring corporations to meet their social responsibilities.
We’ll get to the broader implications later; first a bit about Westfield, and the history of the dispute that now is embarrassing the company around the world.
Since it first listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1960 with two shopping centres in Western Sydney, Westfield has grown into (as its website says) “one of the world’s largest shopping centre portfolios with 99 centres in Australia, New Zealand, United States, and the United Kingdom”, which in 2012 generated $40 billion in retail sales.