Qantas shareholders have voted “emphatically” against a move to review the airline’s policy of facilitating forced deportations of refugees and asylum seekers.
A resolution to amend the company’s constitution to insert a ‘Human Rights Due Diligence Clause’ was put to a vote at the Qantas annual general meeting on Friday.
If passed, it would have paved the way for a comprehensive review of the airline’s policy on involuntary transportation.
But the move was defeated, with at least 75 per cent of shareholders voting against the resolution for the constitutional change brought forward by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR).
The motion was defeated as Qantas faced increasing pressure to refuse to transport a Tamil family, facing deportation against their will.
Priya, Nadesalingam and their two Queensland-born daughters, Kopika and Tharunicaa, have been held in a Melbourne detention centre since March, when emergency legal action saw them removed from a deportation flight at Perth Airport.
Nadesalingam and Priya, both Tamils, came to Australia separately by boat in 2012 and 2013 following Sri Lanka’s civil war and settled in the Queensland town of Biloela, where they had been raising their daughters.
An online petition calling on Qantas and 11 other airlines to refuse to fly the family against their will has attracted more than 15,000 signatures.
Queensland resident and supporter of Priya and Nades, Angela Fredericks attended the Qantas AGM and said the family’s treatment highlighted the role of commercial and charter airlines in the forced transportation of asylum seekers and refugees.
“Our concern is that numerous authorities are saying that our government is breaking several refugee conventions, and essentially these airlines are sending people back to danger and persecution,” Ms Fredericks said.
Qantas transports people if requested by the Department of Home Affairs.
But the ACCR claims the airline’s role in forced deportations is damaging to its reputation because it puts the company at “real risk of involvement in human rights abuses” as many refused refugees have not been properly assessed.
“A company is either for human rights or it is not. There is no halfway position here. For Qantas’s leadership to be in favour of human rights on some issues, and facilitating human rights abuses on others stinks of hypocrisy and, over the medium term, won’t be tolerated by their customers and their investors,” said ACCR director Brynn O’Brien
In the UK, Virgin Atlantic has already indicated their cessation of deportation activity, and there is hope Virgin Australia will soon follow suit.
Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford told shareholders before the vote on that Qantas can’t act as a “third umpire” on individual immigration cases and to do so would undermine the Australian government and the judicial system.
“We do not believe this is in the interests of shareholders or the broader community,” Mr Leigh said.
“We don’t believe the action is really about Qantas at all, it’s about finding different ways to pressure the Australian government and the federal opposition to change its immigration policy,” he said.
In addressing the AGM, Ms O’Brien told shareholders this was not a “tenable position” under the UN guiding principles.
“We have very real concerns that our company is either ignoring or fails to understand its human rights commitments in this specific context and this context only,” Ms O’Brien said.
Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said the problem with the resolution was that the airline would be forced to make a judgement call on each individual case of forced transportation, saying it was impractical and “just not feasible.”
Ms Fredericks said supporters will continue targeting airlines.
“Most definitely Virgin and I’ve already been petitioning 11 other airlines as well,” she said.