Microsoft fends off challenge on China staff rights

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2001, 12:00am

Microsoft shareholders have voted down a resolution criticising the company for its human rights record in China.

The proposal, made at Wednesday's annual shareholders' meeting, called on Microsoft to ensure its employees and subcontractors were not the victims of human-rights abuses.

'We have no evidence that Microsoft is adequately addressing these problems,' said Elaine Gibbons, representing Napa Valley investment firm Harrington Investments. She also expressed concern over the right of Microsoft staff in China to form a trade union, and to practice their own religious beliefs.

'This threat to Microsoft employees is actual and not theoretical,' she said. 'According to Amnesty, workers advertising independent unions have been tortured, thrown into psychiatric institutions with terrible side effects. If Microsoft employees sought to form an independent union in China, they would be likely to be subject to similar treatment.'

She gave an example of a mainland Microsoft employee who reportedly applied for political asylum in Ireland this year, according to the Irish Times newspaper. Amnesty International reportedly wrote to the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs testifying that 'she might face detention and torture in China because of her religious activities'.

The statement also called on Microsoft to avoid selling software to mainland police or security services that might use it to suppress dissent. Harrington Investments, which holds 55,000 shares in the company, appeared to understand that its chances of winning the vote were slim.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said he was unaware of any rights violations in the company. He said Microsoft management avoided labour disputes through frequent visits to the country.

'Many of us are in China frequently. We know our employees in China. We hear the complaints, if there are complaints. We have never had a complaint along the lines cited in the shareholder resolution,' said Mr Ballmer.

'I think there's a pretty healthy feedback process from our employees in China back to the management team . . . We are in very good touch with our employees in China and the environment there, and the compliance of our team in China with our overall practices.'

Rick Belluzo, Microsoft president and chief operating officer, said the company's existing practices prevented rights abuses in its overseas offices. 'Microsoft already maintains strong policies designed to promote a healthy environment, prohibit harassment, and prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, or national origin,' he said.

The proposal received 8.8 per cent of votes cast, and was defeated. Microsoft Hong Kong officials were not available to comment on the issue.

The meeting came one day after Microsoft narrowly missed settling its four-year-old anti-trust lawsuit with the US Government and 18 states. However, most speakers lauded the proposed settlement as a victory.

'We have been doing our best to achieve a settlement during this entire period, and it was largely because of the appeals court ruling and the new judge focusing on this settlement that this was able to go forward,' said chairman Bill Gates.

Ten states have either yet to decide on which direction they will take, or have pledged to continue the suit without the government's support.