Swiss aim to tackle high pay through shareholder democracy

You scratch my back, I'll ask the shareholder remuneration committee to vote to scratch yours.

Switzerland has followed the EU and implemented laws designed to curb high pay. But whereas the EU implemented a hard cap which only affected bonuses in the banking industry, the Swiss plan is both more wide-ranging and less heavy-handed in how it operates.

The key change is a requirement that companies give shareholders a binding vote on executive pay. Currently, pay is set by companies' boards, but now that the Swiss people have spoken, in a referendum which achieved a 68 per cent "yes" vote, one of the highest in the country's history, that is going to change.

The move will fight the so-called principal-agent problem, which is common throughout business and politics. In theory, shareholders entrust the board to make the right decisions on executive pay; if higher pay will lead to more value for the shareholders, perhaps by encouraging the best candidates, then the board should support it, but in most situations, the board should endeavour to keep costs down. Unfortunately, while the board members are entrusted by the shareholders to act in their interests, board members also have their own interests — which may conflict.

In this situation, the classic conflict is that a board member for one company may well be an executive for another, and vice versa. They end up in the situation where they are making decisions about the pay of people who make decisions about their pay, and it's not hard to see how that could result in pay going through the roof.

But handing control over to shareholders doesn't remove all principal agent problems. It all depends how institutional shareholders decide to act — and there's reason to believe they may not be much better. If you invest in a pension fund, you technically own several companies. But the right to vote on how those companies are run — and now, in Switzerland, on how much those companies' executives are paid — is held by the pension fund.

Such funds tend to be uncomfortable about exercising too much shareholder democracy. Partly, this is because they fall prey to the same problem that boards do: the executives who decide how to vote have their pay set by other executives voting on remuneration committees, and the whole backscratching saga continues only slightly abated.

But it is also a matter of privilege and viewpoints. Even if there is no chance of reciprocity, a highly paid financial executive is likely to have very different views on the appropriate level of pay for other highly paid financial executives compared to you or I. For shareholder democracy to really deal with high pay in the boardroom, it would need either a massive resurgence in private investors (not the best idea, since that would likely also result in a huge upswing in private investors losing all their money in the stock market) or institutional investors devolving much more say to their members.

The other requirements set by the Swiss referendum are likely to have more direct effects. In requiring annual re-elections for directors, they remove much of the inertia that can keep people in these extremely well-remunerated, largely ceremonial positions for years beyond their time. And in explicitly banning "golden hellos" and "goodbyes", the practice of awarding a large lump sum upon joining or leaving a company, they create a much more stable and manageable system of pay for the shareholders to oversee.

But fundamentally, tackling high pay — and by extension, inequality — requires tackling the fact that the rich choose how much to pay the rich. The best proposal to do that is something similar to the suggestion that employees ought to have a place on the company's remuneration committee. After all, they have just as much interest in the company being run well, because their jobs depend on it. But they also bring a viewpoint which is sorely lacking in these discussions, whether they are being held in Switzerland or Britain.

The city of Montreux, Switzerland. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.