This week, we as civil rights and labor leaders are headed to the Hyundai shareholders meeting in Seoul, South Korea. We aren't going because we hold investments in Hyundai; we're going because Hyundai has a lot invested in the state of Alabama, and vice versa, and those investments are souring fast.
Alabama has placed itself at the forefront of a new civil and human rights struggle. It's a familiar role for this state -- ground zero for the most virulent forms of racial segregation on the route from slavery to freedom. The state is now home to H.B. 56, the most oppressive anti-immigrant law in the country.
H.B. 56 is so extreme that federal courts have enjoined some of its most pernicious sections. Still, the law is a human rights disaster. Latinos, regardless of immigration status, have fled the state en masse. On the first Monday after the bill was signed into law, approximately 2,285 of the state's Hispanic students stayed away from schools rather than be forced to report their parents' immigration status. Alabamans are scared -- and rightfully so.
Alabama has worked aggressively to attract foreign investment, offering tax incentives and other breaks for foreign-based companies to locate there. The numbers speak for themselves. Prior to 1997, when the Confederate flag was removed from atop the state capitol, not one car was produced in Alabama. Today, the foreign auto industry supports more than 45,000 jobs in the state and accounts for $4.8 billion in total payroll. Hyundai, alone, is responsible for 2 percent of Alabama's gross domestic product.
Alabama's hypocrisy is mind-numbing. With one hand, the state provides massive tax incentives to attract foreign investment. With the other, it passes laws targeting people who "look foreign."
Most of Hyundai's top executives and shareholders could potentially be targeted for police harassment in Alabama and be jailed for not having proper documentation. It happened to a Daimler AG executive who "looked foreign," and a Honda executive who was charged for not carrying the I.D. required by H.B. 56.
Despite overwhelming criticism, the state legislature refuses to repeal H.B. 56 and is only considering a few "tweaks." But, you can't tweak hatred, you can't tweak fear, and you can't tweak a human rights and economic disaster. Local farmers and small business owners have already spoken up to the legislature and the governor about the urgent need to repeal H.B. 56. It's time for the automakers to speak up as well.
Hyundai could take a lesson from another multi-national corporation, the Coca-Cola Company. Coca-Cola helped to end racial segregation in Atlanta. Why? Because the executives were embarrassed to be doing business in a segregated city. After local hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Coca-Cola's CEO gathered the region's business leaders and told them in plain language, "We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Co. does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Co."
With its silence on the law, Hyundai is willfully ignoring the U.N. Global Compact it once signed committing itself to "develop an awareness of human rights and to work within their sphere of influence to uphold these universal values... " The compact clearly states "businesses should make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses," including through silence or inaction.
Our request to Hyundai and shareholders is simple: Open your eyes. When you do, you will be concerned about doing business in a state that discriminates.
Hyundai, speak out against human rights violations. Money talks, and in Alabama, and until now, your money has been silent. You have the power to stand for civil and human rights for the most powerless individuals. Let your voice be heard.
Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Eliseo Medina is the international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)