Is it wrong to buy Glencore shares?

The mining giant blames the media for its bad image. Jim Armitage advises on whether potential investors should care

When your shareholders complain that their children and friends are ashamed of them for investing in your company, you know you've got an image problem.

The FTSE 100 mining and commodities giant Glencore is in just such a bind.

"I have been a shareholder from day one," a private investor giving his name as Gary (or Cary? the mic was a touch fuzzy) declared at its annual meeting yesterday. "But my son says, 'Daddy, this company, it keeps coming up in the media and on the news. How much do they really invest in areas where they operate?'"

The chief executive, Ivan Glasenberg, responded that if there was an PR problem with the company, this was due to the media, which only ever prints the bad news promoted by non-governmental organisations. There's some truth in that, I suppose: NGOs provide journalists with strong stories, often dressing the characters either in black hats or white hats, when in truth everybody should be in grey.

But it isn't all down to NGOs. Glencore Xstrata is the most powerful commodities trading and mining conglomerate in the world. It deserves scrutiny and, often, criticism. Here are some of the reputational issues raised at and before yesterday's AGM that those tempted to invest might want to consider.

The boardroom

Glencore is the last remaining FTSE 100 company not to have a woman on the board. Its former chairman, Simon Murray, provided an infamous insight into why in 2011, saying "pregnant ladies have nine months off" and "quite often [women] like bringing up their children and all sorts of other things". Bless them. The weekend press reported that a woman would be arriving within months, but Glencore's new chairman, Tony Hayward, pushed that back yesterday to the company's previous line of "by the end of the year".

It was a stance which clearly enraged the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who barked that they have had three years to get in line with his efforts to get all FTSE 100 boards to be made up of at least 25 per cent women.

Meanwhile, Mr Hayward's appointment itself has caused consternation, and not only because he is the man who wanted to "get his life back" while he was dealing with the Gulf of Mexico tragedy at BP. Another issue is that he was appointed to the chairmanship internally, rather than from outside the company, and then there's his other full-on job running Genel, the oil explorer that he runs with Nat Rothschild. This carries a risk of conflicts of interest and also begs the question of how he can find time to do both.

Treatment of indigenous people

Mr Hayward is used to being questioned on the welfare of the people living near his exploration projects; in his BP days, many an AGM was interrupted by the environmental lobby. Yesterday, he took great pains to highlight how much good Glencore's investment does to local communities. But one man begged to differ.

He had made the journey from Colombia, where his village in La Guajira was repatriated to make way for the expansion of a vast coal mine part-owned by Glencore. The place they were moved to, he said, had no water or sustainable farming land. Mr Hayward declared that the water problems were due to a drought and "not a consequence of the relocation".

By the nature of mining, locals will always suffer environmental damage and all major mining firms become embroiled in similar scandals; investors should beware.

Workers' conditions

There were 26 deaths among Glencore's workforce last year. Mr Hayward declared that "we do not accept any fatalities," but the fatal figure was very similar to the 27 of the previous year.

While there are numerous reports of unrest – last year the company fired about 1,000 workers who took part in an unauthorised strike at three South African sites – Glencore argues that it brings investment on a vast scale, with better health and safety practices than smaller local or state-run operators.

As Mr Hayward said yesterday: "When we invest, we create many very well-paid jobs, and each of those supports families of seven or eight people." Some NGOs still beg to differ.

Environmental performance

The Church of England Commissioners' investment fund manager was at yesterday's AGM praising Glencore for the improvement in its environmental standards. But those living near its Mopani plant in Zambia have suffered some of the worst pollution in the world for decades.

Mr Hayward yesterday boasted that Glencore had now upgraded the offending smelter to make it far less dangerous, capturing 97 per cent of sulphur dioxide emissions that many locals say are harming them.

However, critics such as Christian Aid argue that it has taken way too long for Glencore, which bought the mine in 2000, to fix it.

Financial transparency

It is not just for environmental reasons that Glencore has been attacked in Zambia. It was accused in a report by the accountants Grant Thornton of deliberately overstating its overheads there to cut its profits and, hence, its tax bill.

The European Investment Bank, which halted loans to Glencore due to concerns about its corporate governance, has not helped disperse the whiff of scandal by failing to make public its investigation into the matter. Glencore has said Grant Thornton's report was "flawed".

Meanwhile, only this week, Glencore came under another round of fire over its dealings with the Democratic Republic of Congo's controversial dealmaker Dan Gertler. According to a report by Global Witness, Mr Gertler – a close friend of the country's President Joseph Kabila – made $67m (£40m) out of deals with Glencore.

GW said Mr Gertler borrowed nearly $570m from Glencore between 2007 and 2010. That's problematic, GW argued at the AGM, because of allegations of corruption surrounding Mr Gertler (which he strenuously denies). Mr Hayward countered that Glencore worked with him at "arm's length", mind, because no one else had the nerve to invest.

Glencore's origins go back to the wheeler-dealer days of the late fugitive Marc Rich, its founder, who made billions trading where others feared to tread. Transparency does not apparently come naturally. At yesterday's meeting, the company also changed from international accounting rules to those of its privacy-loving homeland, Switzerland.

Supine shareholders

For all the above issues, investors yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of the company's accounts and appointments. With support like that, it's easy to brush critics aside. But is that good enough for Gary's son?

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