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Dutch broadcasters push their pension fund towards sustainability

september 2022

As in many other countries, Dutch employees cannot choose the pension fund which invests their pension premiums on their behalf. Depending on which employer they work for, they are stuck to a specific fund. But what to do if your fund is not investing responsibly? Dutch broadcasters push their pension fund PNO Media towards more sustainability. But is the pension fund that believes more in engagement with companies than in exclusion of companies, willing to engage itself with its members?

By Mara Werkman

At first sight, the pension fund for the broadcasting sector PNO Media has nice principles: “PNO Media does not only focus on return of investments. We also believe that we should invest responsibly. After all, a good future is not only about money, but also about the world in which we live.” But while the impacts of climate change are visible all around us, the fund is still strongly investing in the fossil fuel sector.

Many broadcasters are working on climate issues, both within their organizations as in the programs they produce. Sustainability is of importance to them. As switching to another fund is not an option, eight directors of Dutch broadcasting organizations in February of this year sent an open letter to PNO Media with the request to divest from fossil fuels. To no avail. PNO Media responded that it will continue to have dialogues with companies in the fossil fuel industry as it believes that talking is more effective than excluding these companies.

A few months earlier, other investments by PNO Media shocked its members. Profundo research published in December 2021 showed that PNO Media invests in Qatar sovereign bonds, and in the Qatar state oil company, thereby supporting the Qatar government. The football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup are paid with sovereign bonds. During the construction of the infrastructure for the World Cup many people have been working in appalling labour conditions, for more than twelve hours per day in the blazing sun, they had to hand in their passports, or were paid less than the minimum wage. Possibly thousands of people have died in the run-up to the upcoming mega-event. 

In national newspaper De Volkskrant, well-known tv journalist Jeroen Wollaars questioned how this strong exposure to Qatar could align with PNO Media’s policy not to invest in government bonds from countries that do not care about press freedom. The pension fund knows that journalists have been imprisoned in Qatar for being critical about the government. The country ranks 128 (out of 180 countries) in the World Press Freedom Index. But the fund responded: “PNO Media excludes government bonds from countries in the lowest category of the World Press Freedom Index, plus countries where in the past year severe incidents and violation of the freedom of press have taken place. Based on this, PNO Media excludes 32 countries in the world. Qatar is not among them.” However, the fund added: “PNO Media periodically evaluates this policy. This may mean that in the future also the second lowest category, in which Qatar is, will be excluded."

Instead of accepting the unwillingness of the fund to act better, the staff of broadcasting organization VPRO is now taking action against PNO Media, focusing on the climate policies of the pension fund. They have started a petition among fellow broadcasters and organize public debates. On their request, Profundo assessed in May this year the pension fund’s policies on five climate-related themes, including climate change, nature, oil & gas, mining and transparency & accountability.

The research showed that PNO Media scores poorly on these themes, also in comparison with other pension funds. The fund hardly has any policy on climate change and nature, nor does it have sector-specific policies for the mining sector and the oil & gas sector. Finally, the pension fund is not sufficiently transparent about its sustainable investing activities.

Almost all pension funds included in the Dutch Fair Pension Guide have policies to stop investing in the worst fossil fuel sources, like coal and tar sands, and some of them have quitted fossil fuel investments already completely. But PNO Media has no such intentions whatsoever. It still invests in coal companies like BHP and Rio Tinto. The fund is not very transparent about the CO2 emissions linked to its investment portfolio and it has no strategy to bring the emissions in line with the 1.5 degrees commitments of the Paris Agreement.

According to a letter of chairman of the board to the VPRO, there has been a survey among the pension fund’s participants on their perspectives on sustainability, and the findings of this survey will be taken into account when PNO Media reassesses its ESG policy. In this letter, the board explicitly ignores Profundo’s assessment on behalf of the VPRO on the climate unfriendliness of its investment policy, by saying that they will not react to the report, nor that they will take the findings of the report into account.

The broadcasters of VPRO, together with their colleagues from KRO NCRV, will continue their struggle to change the policies of PNO Media. They have no other option, as they cannot switch to another pension fund. They know this undermines their bargaining position, but on the other hand: if the pension fund really believes in dialogue and engagement, now is the time to prove this. The outcome might inspire employees in other sectors to hold their pension funds accountable as well.

Mara Werkman is researcher at Profundo. She can be contacted at m.werkman@profundo.nl. 

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