Why the Dorchester Collection protest is wrong

Arvind Hickman , 19 May 2014


The protest against the Dorchester Collection (DC) over its tenuous links to Brunei’s harsh Sharia laws are misguided, ineffective and will only harm the employees of a company that has equality at the heart of its corporate soul, argues HR magazine editor Arvind Hickman.

This month, Virgin boss Richard Branson publicly protested against new draconian laws that make homosexuality in Brunei punishable by death, following similar boycotts by celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno and Stephen Fry.

The target of Branson’s protest wasn’t the government of Brunei, or other powerful governments, such as the UK, who have close trading ties with the country. Rather, it was the Dorchester Collection – a group of 10 luxury hotels in Europe and the US that is owned by the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA), a sovereign wealth fund.

It is commendable to see high-profile business leaders and celebrities stand up for their convictions and fight against laws that amount to a sickening breach of human rights, even though it is hypocritical Branson would target the Dorchester Collection when his own Virgin Australia flies passengers to Brunei nearly every day.

The problem with boycotting Dorchester Collection hotels is that it is unlikely to have any impact on the Brunei government and will only harm the company’s 3,750 employees, many of whom belong to the very LGBT community the protest is trying to defend. 

There is also hypocrisy in attacking one company with links to anti-LGBT regimes, while turning a blind eye to hundreds of others, many of which are in retail and hospitality (see below). 

Here are five reasons why the Dorchester Collection boycott is misguided:

DC profits do not go to Brunei: The Dorchester Collection has annual revenue of £300 million, an insignificant amount compared to the estimated $30 billion in assets managed by the BIA. All profits from Dorchester Collection hotels are re-invested back into the hotels, according to DC vice president of people and organisational development Eugenio Pirri. Using it as a financial lever would have no impact on the BIA. The company that generates the most wealth to the BIA is the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company, an 80-year-old joint venture between Dutch Royal Shell and the Brunei government that extracts and produces the nation’s crude oil and gas. Brunei's (and the Sultan's) wealth is primarily from oil and gas.

The human impact: The boycott has already affected revenues of the DC. This week the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) pulled out of an agreement to host its annual BSME awards at the Dorchester Hotel. Events in the company's Los Angeles hotels have also been cancelled. The impact of lost revenue can only harm DC employees. Although it is admirable the DC has promised to protect jobs and wages, a prolonged boycott could potentially threaten jobs.

DC promotes equality: What is particularly sad about this protest is that the Dorchester Collection is a strong advocate for equality; it is enshrined in the company’s HR policies and code of conduct, which I have seen. The man in charge of upholding the code, Pirri, is gay, an appointment the Brunei Investment Agency sanctioned. Pirri told me there is a sizeable LGBT community who work for Dorchester Collection hotels and the group has sponsored many LGBT events and provided support to this community in the past.

A global problem: Homosexuality is punishable by death in several countries other than Brunei: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Sudan, Nigeria, Mauritania and Somalia. The problem is a global one and requires a global solution. Middle East wealth funds own or partially own hundreds of Western companies, including many hotels and fashion labels. None of these companies should be individually targeted. 

Protest to the right channels: The US government is in talks with Brunei as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement. The UK government is a close ally of Brunei, which gained independence from Britain in 1984. Lobbying efforts should focus on these channels, which have the power to pressure Brunei to change.

While the boycott has gained A-list celebrity backing, support for the Dorchester Collection is growing internally and externally.

Jonathan Mattis, an employee of the Hotel Bel-Air and The Beverly Hills Hotel, is one of several employees who have supported the group in forums and social media. On Advocate.com, a media site that covers LGBT issues, he said: “As a 13 year LGBT employee of the LA Dorchester Collection hotels I can say this is a phenomenal company. I initiated gay marriage advertising as soon as it was legal in California again and that suggestion was welcomed without batting an eyelash.”

Last week, the LGB charity Stonewall said it would not support the Dorchester Collection boycott. Chief executive Ruth Hunt wrote in the Telegraph that it was ineffective and “most rewarding to the individuals taking part”.

Hunt is right. Targeting one company that has tenuous links with an oppressive regime is not the way to influence change. If anything, the Dorchester Collection, and companies like it, should be championed for promoting equality and diversity.

A more effective campaign would target governments that can use the right levers to bring about change.

Other companies owned by countries that mandate LGBT death penalty

Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts (Saudi Arabia – Kingdom Holding Company)

Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, which includes The Savoy and The Plaza (Saudi Arabia – Kingdom Holding Company)

Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts (Saudi Arabia – Kingdom Holding Company)

Hotel George V, Paris (Saudi Arabia – Kingdom Holding Company)

IFA Hotels and Resorts (Saudi Arabia – Kingdom Holding Company)

Harrods (Qatar Holding)

Valentino (Qatar Holding) Former Valentino partner Giancarlo Giammetti has also repeated calls for a Dorchester Collection boycott.

Qatar Holding also has stakes in luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy, Tiffany and Co, Anya Hindmarch, Barclays, Sainsbury's, Volkswagen and Porsche.

Kingdom Holdings also has stakes in Twitter, News Corporation and Citigroup. It previously had stakes in Proctor & Gamble, eBay, Ford, McDonald’s, Apple, Amazon, PepsiCo, to name a few.

7 comments on this article

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Celebrity Hypocrisy at DC Protest

Pat Hartwell 19 May 2014

I was delighted to see this article as I had submitted similar views on Linked on HR groups' sites. The reasoned arguments illustrate the fallacy of 'secondary picketing' (didn't we outlaw this some years back?). I would also refer people to S E Cupp in CNN.com who outlines the Hollywood hypocrisy for holidays in the UAE and taking millions of dollars from Image Media Abu Dhabi invested in US film companies. Promised Land - the film about anti-fracking was subsidised by oil-rich UAE! Are the Hollywood celebs and the UK Celebs going to boycott the 81 other states where homosexuality is illegal?

Classic reaction

Tony Levene 19 May 2014

This is the classic reaction to all boycott calls. To state that they are wrong-headed and harm the wrong people. Boycotts on their own do not work. But they draw attention to a problem - Apartheid South Africa was a good example. They can take time. And given that Brunei is a tightly controlled state, what else can people do as individuals? The boycott, as with South Africa, is part of the protest but it has, for instance, given the Brunei anti-gay laws far more publicity than they would have had otherwise.

The only thing wrong is this article.

Nel 19 May 2014

This article makes the wrong argument and misses the bigger picture. I don't think many are naive enough to think that the boycott alone will bring about change, but that doesn't mean that it's not an important part of a much larger initiative. Firstly it brings attention to the issue. And that includes both the attention of the general public, and probably more importantly, the attention of the government and power brokers in Brunei. If you think for a second that this negative publicity isn't going to make its way back to the latter then you're the one that's naive. The Dorchester Collection group is also accountable to a board and at some level / some point that board is one degree of seperation away from the Sultan and his disgusting cronies. So believe me, they will hear about it. Will they care? If their economic interests are sufficiently impacted they will. And if they're not, it will still consume a few moments of their time which they otherwise might be using to pass laws that demean and kill innocent people. Let's also not forget that the world is becoming a smaller place and many of Brunei's royal family and government officials will have wives that love to travel abroad, children that study at international academic institutions, etc. So again, boycotting sends a strong message that will in one form or another reach these people. A message that says, in our global community such barbaric practices will not go unnoticed if not unpunished. Then, the point in this article about the hotel being an equal opportunity employer, promoting gay and lesbian rights and so forth is nice and all, but in no way shape or form mitigates or offsets the fact that the ultimate beneficial owners of this group are effectively sentencing to death people for the most cruel of reasons. I'm sorry if you're going to lose your job because your hotel is being boycotted and revenue decreases, but guess what? Your need for a job doesn't outweigh the execution of innocent humans in the most disgusting of ways. This line of argument in the article really rags me. If my company was owned by a bunch of nazis that were killing people I would quit even if I had no job to go to. And let's face it, these hotels aren't exactly typically in impoverished countries where losing ones job means starving to death. And here's another thing - if the Dorchester Collection chain of hotels go out of business what do you think customers who previously stayed at their hotels will start doing...? Do you think they'll just stop travelling and stay home for eternity? Don't be ridiculous of course they won't! New hotels will spring up to take their place or existing hotels will expand to pick up this business. And guess what? They will need staff! Boom. Full circle. So don't make as if any associated job losses as a result of boycotts will result in jobs lost that will never be replaced. Because that's nonesense and you know it is. Lastly, I'm not sure the point you were making about listing all the other hotel chains owned by despotic and evil states, but that line of argument is akin to saying, "well they're all doing it so lets just chill out and let bygones be bygones". Well I say f-that. And I thank you for highlighting those other chains because now I've got an even longer list of hotels not to stay at when I travel abroad, which is ironic because the tone of this article implied the opposite sort of reaction was desired. The internet is great and the walls are closing in on the leaders of nations like Brunei. Don't be put off by articles like this - it's easy to feel deflated reading them, but believe me, boycotts can and do play a role in bringing about change.

Pak Manis

Pak Manis 20 May 2014

With all respect I’m afraid Mr Hickman is wrong on almost every point. - BIA might be called a sovereign wealth fund but it’s profits go directly to the Sultan. - Virgin Australia (or any Branson planes) do not, and have never, flown to Brunei. -Dorchester profits are ‘only’ reinvested – sorry that’s jsut not true. - While 60% of Shell profits go directly to the Sultan. 100% from BIA goes to him. -Piri might be gay but this could never be made public in Brunei, there’d be an outcry here. -The public in Brunei are kept in the dark about LGBT events at Brunei owned hotels. -Just because an issue is global doesn’t mean awareness can’t begin in one’s own backyard. I do agree with the list other hotels owned by countries with draconian laws. But I would suggest boycotting them all. The greater the cry the more people will listen. I’m not trying to be rude, but a little homework is always important.

Thank You

William Miller 20 May 2014

Thank you for the list of companies I will no longer do business with. I do not desire to contribute to companies who are owned by 15th century warlords no matter what they do with their profits. Check a calendar. It's 2014.

Boycott Religious Persecution

Woody McBreairty 21 May 2014

I'm astounded that such a critical subject as stoning people to death & otherwise taking their very lives because this Sultan disapproves of their lives could be reduced to comparing it to a hotel worker's job. There is no threat to the hotel worker's jobs, but if there were, these jobs are easily replaced. Freedoms denied & lives taken are not so easily replaced. I think it takes people of stronger & worthier convictions to stand up for human rights & freedoms than to selfishly suggest that a hotel job is more important to the larger cause of human freedom around the world. Such messages of hate & intolerance as are being perpetrated by this Sultan must be stood up to & stopped in their tracks by all people who value human freedoms, of religion & otherwise. In a matter as monumentally important as this, human freedom comes first above all else. I think those who are putting their jobs as maids, gardeners & waiters ahead of human freedom for all are being selfish & should stand firm with the family of man in resisting the suppression of human freedom by any group, dictators or by government entities of any kind. Period.

Thank you for your feedback

Arvind Hickman 21 May 2014

Thank you all for your feedback. I appreciate this is a sensitive subject and respect everyone's right to protest against these terrible laws. The basis of my argument is that we shouldn't confuse the laws of Brunei with a hotel that is run independently in the US and Europe. I don't feel it is OK to punish staff in the name of a wider cause - two wrongs never make a right, and the staff have nothing to do with Brunei's laws. DC profits are re-invested back into the hotels and are not planned to go to Brunei for many years into the future. If you want to target hotels/companies that are funded by such regimes, just be mindful that the list published here is a very tiny fraction of the broader portfolio. I feel a more effective protest would target the channels that can put immediate pressure on Brunei, namely the US and UK governments. I would encouarge you to continue efforts that will bring about meaningful change, and respect your right to protest in whichever way you see fit. I hope that these countries will eventually change their laws to promote tolerance and respect the basic human rights of all people. Thank you for taking the time to articulate your views and please do keep contributing to this important debate.

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