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What’s wrong with HSBC and Barclays?

Barclays and HSBC are amongst the largest banks in the UK. Yet, both companies have been repeatedly criticised over ethical issues and face ongoing campaigns.


HSBC is the fourth largest banking group in the UK. Below we run down just a few of the recent criticisms levelled against the company.

Biggest gender pay gap for UK banks

Women at HSBC earn on average just 52p for every £1 paid to male colleagues, according to the company’s 2020 gender pay gap report. HSBC has the worst gender pay gap among UK banks. The bank says that the gap has been driven by the fact that fewer women are in better-paid leadership roles.


Support for China’s oppression of Hong Kong

HSBC has publicly backed China’s anti-democratic legislation in Hong Kong. The company’s top executive in Asia signed a petition in support of a new National Security Bill in June, with the company sharing a photo on social media.

The new law means that any person seen as ‘undermining national unification’ with China faces up to a lifetime in prison.

The law – which has been widely condemned – seeks to quash pro-Independence protests seen in Hong Kong over the last year. At least 24 people had been arrested under the legislation at the time of writing, including four students between the ages of 15 and 21 and pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai.

Hundreds more have been arrested under other legislation at protests against its introduction. The law is part of a wider crackdown on political opposition, as part of which 12 pro-democracy candidates have been disqualified from the upcoming election.

Financing Israeli appartheid

HSBC has been criticised for its financing of companies that sell arms and military equipment to Israel that have been used in the oppression of Palestinians. In July 2017, War on Want released a report which found that HSBC had provided £19.3 billion in loans to and held £832 million in shares for companies supplying Israel with arms.

In 2018, HSBC divested from Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company and supplier of drones to the Israeli state. However, as of 2020, the company continued to hold shares in Caterpillar, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon – all of which were linked by War on Want to the oppression of Palestine.

Enabling Amazon oil extraction

In March 2020, Amazon Watch published a report that identified five financial institutions that provided financial services to oil companies to enable regional expansion of Amazon crude oil operations. HSBC and Citigroup were amongst these. HSBC’s total contribution to Amazon crude oil extraction was said to be over $1.2billion from 2017-19.

The report says,

“Decades of oil extraction in the western Amazon have left irrefutable evidence of devastation to indigenous peoples and local ecosystems – destruction that will continue to worsen as long as drilling for Amazon crude oil is allowed to continue.”

In 2019, Amazon Watch also linked HSBC to cattle ranching and soy companies with links to illegal deforestation, to the sum of $781million.

Banking on fossil fuel expansion

HSBC has provided over $87billion to fossil fuel companies since 2016, according to the 2020 Banking on Climate Change Report, making it the tenth largest banker of fossil fuels globally since the Paris Agreement.

The figure includes $33billion to 100 key oil, gas and coal companies expanding fossil fuels, as well as funding for some of the most damaging fossil fuels such as tar sands and coal.

In 2018, the company launched a policy prohibiting the financing of new coal plants. However, it left significant loopholes. Although it will no longer lend to companies building new coal plants, the policy does not address “the myriad other financial pathways through which it can support the coal industry” according to Jack Bertous from campaign group Market Forces.

The company continues to hold investments in 18 of the largest 33 companies behind new coal power plants. It is also financing the Payra Port Coal Terminal in Bangladesh, which will increase the country’s coal imports from 1.5million metric tonnes a year to 21.5 million.


Barclays is the largest individual provider of current accounts in the UK and the “worst banker of fossil fuels” in Europe.

Bankrolling climate change

Barclays has been Europe’s biggest investor in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement, according to the Banking on Climate Change report, providing 36% more finance than the next worst European banker (HSBC). From 2016-19 the company invested $118.1 billion. It is also the tenth biggest funder of fossil fuel expansion.

At its AGM in May 2020, over 75% of Barclays shareholders voted against a resolution to end the company’s investments in fossil fuels.

Funding Bangladesh’s coal expansion

Barclays has provided $USD 300 million for NTPC, the key initiator behind the Rampal Power Plant in Bangladesh, through bond underwriting. The power plant threatens the world’s largest mangrove forest, Sundarbans, a vital carbon sink and has seen extensive protests in the country and around the world.

Until now, only 2.8% of Bangladesh’s energy has come from coal. Yet, the government plans to increase dependence on coal up to 37% over the next decade by establishing 29 new coal power plants.

According to Tonny Nowshin, a researcher at environmental and human rights organisation Urgewald and a degrowth activist from Bangladesh, the pollution from the power plant would cause low birth weight for 24,000 babies and pre-mature death for 6,000 people.

“Coalmining takes away important land space for living, agriculture and nature. It depletes ground water. Coal power plants also emit huge amount of fly ash, NOx, CO2 and other heavy metals like lead and mercury, which are bad for living beings and the environment… without the financial support of Barclays, this project could not go ahead.”

Financing deforestation

Barclays has also been criticised for its links to deforestation in the Amazon. According to an Amazon Watch report published in 2019, 80% of Amazon deforestation is caused by cattle ranking and soy industries. Barclays has provided financial services worth millions to five beef and soy companies known for their links with deforestation.

In particular, Barclays is said to have insured four bond deals totalling $2.75billion for meat producer JBS. JBS is controlled by brothers Wesley and Joesley Batista, who confessed to bribing more than 1,800 politicians in Brazil in 2017.

Until recently, JBS has claimed that there is little it can do to address Amazon deforestation in its supply chain. But in July 2020, an investigation by Reporter Brasil, Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian uncovered photographs of a JBS lorry transporting cows from a supplier under government sanctions for deforestation to a “clean” JBS supplier.

Greenpeace says that the report suggests “JBS is not just turning a blind eye to its suppliers’ violations but has been directly implicated”. Barclays has been identified as JBS’s ‘go-to bank’.

A new report in 2023 has also found Barlcays was the biggest financier of JBS over the last eight years. JBS is estimated to be the highest-emitting meat corporation globally – responsible for an estimated 288 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021, more than the total emissions of Spain in the same year. The research estimates that Barclays provided over $6 billion in finance to JBS between 2015 and 2022 despite Barclays’ commitment to become net zero by 2050. The Rotten Business report is published by campaign groups BankTrack, Feedback, and Mighty Earth and available on the Feedback website.


Violations of Indigenous rights

Many of the projects that Barclays is backing are linked with serious human rights abuses, including ongoing violations of Indigenous rights.

Barclays - along with HSBC, Citibank, Deutsche Bank and others – has been named as a key backer for oil pipelines in Canada. In 2016, it came under fire for providing financial services for the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, which faced mass protests at the Sioux Standing Rock Reservation, which it crossed.

More recently, Barclays has provided services to the companies behind three other tar sands pipeline projects in America and the US, all off which will cross Indigenous territories.

Mazaska Talks, a campaign from the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous People, says that all three pipelines are “in violation of indigenous people's right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.”

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