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Unignorable thesis

Financial Times

By Louise Lucas

Published: February 12 2010 02:00

What to make of the “peaceful corporate revolution” being urged on Royal Dutch Shell, where nameless, ostensible employees are taking it to task over activities in Nigeria?

Big companies, particularly those dredging the heavily geopolitical waters of oil, inevitably come under attack. When you produce something that generates big money, often in countries where poverty is rife and human rights abuses abound, there is plenty of scope for criticism. There is also plenty of scope for confusion as to what an oil giant can and cannot do: insisting that a government’s oil revenues are funnelled into hospitals and schools is laudable, but presidents of countries are free to think otherwise.

In many ways, Shell has got off lightly. These are not a whistleblower’s revelations – regardless of what the writers say, the grievances have all been rehearsed before. The self-styled dissidents, assuming they are genuine employees, are supposedly 100-odd strong, hardly enough to launch even a gentle rearguard action, and intent on protecting their anonymity.Amateurism hangs over the campaign. The list of employees which has been leaked is, Shell says, six months out of date. Guesstimates made in the 36,000-word manifesto are as pointless as they are painful: “Almost all (99.5%) of common & low-level Shell employees” are unaware of Shell’s behaviour in Nigeria as are “possibly all (100%) of Shell’s institutional investors”. It is sometimes repetitive and ungrammatical and occasionally more earnest than coherent – not dissimilar to an undergraduate thesis.

That said, big business can no more ignore the hippies, whether within its ranks or not, than it can shrug off Hollywood (for whom corporate malfeasance has provided a rich seam – from Erin Brockovich to The Constant Gardner ). Slow-burning protests do sometimes assume a life of their own: in China, PetroChina’s flotation was dogged by its activities in Sudan. That is why Shell cannot ignore the claims, however flaky they may appear.

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