Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, has an article in Slate about how multinational corporations who are pro-equality in America and Europe suddenly become anti-equality in their operations in Russia out of political convenience.
But even as the human-rights gap between countries widens, communication continues to improve. So when a company does something in Russia, its customers in America hear about it. Like when IKEA edited an interview with a British lesbian couple out of the Russian edition of its in-house magazine. (It ran in other editions around the world.) Or when a Hilton in Moscow canceled its contract with the Russian LGBT Network a day before its conference was to convene there. Or when it turns out that companies on the Human Rights Campaign’s list of “best places to work” have entirely different personnel policies in the United States and in Russia, where their LGBT employees have a much greater need for protection.
Which companies have different policies in Russia than in the United States? Why, most of them. Last month, a Russian online magazine contacted companies from the HRC list that have offices in Russia and asked them a single question: Do they provide health insurance to the same-sex partners of their employees? “What we got was no so much an investigation as a fascinating account of our reporter’s attempts to get an answer out of the multinational companies,” the editors wrote in an introduction to the resulting report.
Eight companies—including General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and Gap—did not answer the reporter’s repeated emails, phone calls, and social-media queries over the course of several weeks. Nine other companies—including Chrysler, McKinsey & Co., and Citigroup—responded only to say they would not comment. Eleven companies—including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Ford—claimed that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but they don’t provide health insurance to same-sex partners, either. Along the way, the reporter unearthed the Russian version of Coca- Cola’s statement issued last summer in response to Queer Nation’s protests against its sponsorship of the Sochi Olympics—it omitted all references to LGBT people and issues. (And yes, that means it made virtually no sense in Russian.) Only six of the 34 companies contacted said they provide health insurance to same-sex partners; these were Nike, Deutsche Bank, Dell, Boston Consulting Group, Disney, and Google.
Fortunately, there is a solution, an opportunity for U.S.-based multinationals to help Russian LGBT people without jeopardizing their business in Russia. If they can’t risk not contributing to the problem in Russia, they should concentrate on contributing to the solution in the United States. That is, they should help LGBT people who leave dangerous countries to live in a safe one…
Immigration Equality, a legal organization that represents LGBT asylum-seekers in the United States, has recently hired a full-time Russian-speaking paralegal to help with the intake of new clients. Russian speakers now represent the bulk of the group’s incoming clients, overtaking people from Jamaica, who had traditionally held first place. (To grasp the significance of that information, think how much more difficult it is to get to the United States from Russia than from Jamaica.) The hundreds of Russian LGBT refugees who have come over in the last few months are but the forerunners of a larger looming exodus—these are the people with enough money or self-confidence to leave now. As things get more desperate, as they inevitably will, many more will follow. These people are lucky enough to get legal help from Immigration Equality, but at this point there is no organization that can reliably help them with housing, money, job training, and job placement.
This is where the multinational companies come in. First, they should offer their Russian LGBT employees and their families the opportunity to transfer to the United States. Second, they should create programs to actively recruit, hire, and, if necessary, retrain LGBT refugees who are already in the United States. Such programs should not be limited to Russians: As the civilizational divide along LGBT-rights lines grows ever wider, increasing numbers will face more and more danger in countries all over the world, and they will need a safe haven.
That sounds like a great idea. And I think the United States and other countries should make it as easy as possible in their asylum policies to do this as well.