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Are Canadian snowbirds profiting from Uyghur slave camps?

Earlier this month two highly credible UK-based research groups released a report that should horrify all Canadians.

According to Hong Kong Watch (HKW) and the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, the Canada Pension Plan currently invests $14 billion in two equity indices which hold shares in companies profiting from Uyghur slave labour prisoners in China. Titled Passively Funding Crimes Against Humanity, the report alleges that similar investments have also been made by two other federal employee pension funds, as well as six other provincial pension funds in BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

What does this slave labour involve? It underpins nearly every industry in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), from solar panels to agricultural production and processing. Factories are surrounded by razor wire fences, iron gates and security cameras. “Militarized discipline”, coercive land transfers and a forced labour transfer out of the region led the Chinese Institute on Wealth and Economics in 2019 to suggest “the possibility of genocidal intent”.

How could Canadian pension funds invest in these companies? It’s likely the result of a due diligence failure, but one that can – and absolutely should – quickly be addressed and corrected.

Over the past five years the Communist Party of China has pushed a powerful wave of strategic investments onto international markets. Fund managers and investment bankers quickly capitalized on this by introducing stock market indices that track a basket of Chinese equities. These indices allow investment pools like the CPP to offload the work of selecting individual equities to major global money managers like Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI).

This is huge business. Currently more than 1/3 of the $7.8 trillion in global assets are under management using these “passive” index benchmarks to track Chinese equities.

This rush into Chinese equities started shortly after the Communist Party of China’s government began a campaign of repression in the XUAR, its westernmost region. In the name of “re-education”, Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim ethnic groups were subjected to torture, sterilization, sexual assault, organ harvesting, constant surveillance and slavery, which continues today.

How does this impact the CPP? As of March 31, 2022, CPP Investments has $46.1 billion in its Global Equity Index Exposure. Its two largest investments, making up just over $14 billion of that total, are in the MSCI China Index and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

According to the HKW report, the MSCI China index holds investments in twelve publicly traded Chinese companies that have either obtained workers through state-sponsored labour transfers or have been involved in building internment camps and the repression apparatus in the Uyghur region. The MSCI Emerging Markets index is shown to have thirteen such companies.

The report names the companies, gives their profiles, and outlines how they’ve benefitted from these horrendous abuses.

Let’s be clear – the CPP’s $14 billion investment is spread over several hundred emerging market companies. There is no publicly available data showing the exact amounts flowing into the subset of Chinese companies named in the report, but it’s clear that any amount is too much.

CPP Investments oversees the management of the $539 billion fund. It’s led by a blue chip board of directors and senior management team who are very aware of their duty and responsibility to assure the strictest adherence to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) parameters when it comes to investing money on behalf of Canadian retirees.

It’s our view at Centre Ice Canadians that the Canada Pension Plan, and all the other provincial pension funds, need to immediately address the accusations in the HKW Report. Any investment, even if indirect through an equity index, in companies that benefit from slave labour and ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs or any other minority does not live up to the “S” standards in ESG investing.

If the findings of the report are true, the CPP should immediately redeem the $14 billion of Canadian funds from those two indices and place those funds elsewhere. Ditto with the other federal and provincial funds.

Anything less would be flagrant abuse of basic human rights and fly in the face of modern investment standards that Canadians deserve and expect from people managing their retirement funds. Snowbirds heading south this winter deserve to know whether their trip to the sun is financed by slavery – and demand a stop to it.

Rick Peterson is a co-founder & director of Centre Ice Canadians. He is chair of Peterson Capital, a capital markets advisory firm with offices across Canada and in Europe.

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