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Union-busting in India Again Lands Unilever in the Dock at OECD

Posted to the IUF website 29-Oct-2007

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Just over one year after the IUF charged Unilever with gross violations of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises through the fraudulent sale and closure of the company's Mumbai (Bombay) factory in India, union-busting in the state of Assam has again landed Unilever in the dock at the OECD.

The OECD's Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises require overseas subsidiaries of transnational companies to conform to international standards of trade union and human rights. Management at the Hindustan Unilever factory in the Doom Dooma Industrial Estate in Assam brutally locked out 700 union members on July 15 in a dispute over implementation of the collective bargaining agreement. The lockout turned to union busting, as management demanded that workers renounce their union membership and join a company-sponsored organization as a condition for returning to work. When the lockout was declared over on September 3, workers seeking to return to their jobs were met at the gate by management and security guards, who insisted on extracting signed statements from all employees that they were resigning from their union and joining the yellow union before being allowed to enter the factory.

The IUF has therefore charged the parent company with egregious violations of the OECD Guidelines in India in a submission to the OECD National Contact Point in the UK. The text of the IUF submission is available on the IUF web site in pdf format by clicking here.

Shortly after the IUF filed its submission, Hindustan Unilever announced that it had been awarded the "Commendation Certification for Significant Achievement in Human Resources Excellence" by the Confederation of Indian Industry! Hindustan Unilever workers have not been impressed by the award. In a major escalation of the campaign against the illegal closure of the Sewri factory in Mumbai, the All India Council of Unilever Unions (AICUU) recently deployed teams across India to raise awareness among workers at Unileverís newest factories, the factories producing its biggest profits and biggest-selling brands. The newer factories are located in states offering generous tax holidays, whose production and distribution networks have been built on the company's closures and union-busting at older sites. With one AICUU team traveling 4,500 km by land in just 6 days, and another team harassed and pursued by the police but nevertheless succeeding in reaching the workers, thousands of employees at these new sites have learned the truth about the Sewri closure: how, in order to rid itself of an effective union, Hindustan Unilever organized the fraudulent sale of the plant to a shell company, stripped all machinery from the plant, compelled workers to pack laundry detergent by hand and then cited low productivity as the reason for the closure.

While implementing a USD 156 million share buyback, celebrating their 75th anniversary and receiving human resource excellence awards, Hindustan Unilever has not found time to meet with the union from the Mumbai plant, as the OECD procedures suggest it should. Following an initial meeting in the Office of the British High Commission in Mumbai on September 19, the company has repeatedly postponed a follow-up meeting to discuss the union's proposals for ending the dispute.

Throughout the global Unilever system, the relentless search for "shareholder value" is driving accelerating job destruction to free up cash for share buybacks and dividends. Workers at Unilever's 6 sites in the Netherlands have been working without a new collective bargaining agreement since the old one expired on April 30. Three collective bargaining rounds have come and gone without any progress in negotiations, prompting the unions to walk out for 40 hours on October 10 in support of their demands, including: employment guarantees, no compulsory redundancies in connection with restructuring, permanent employment for long-term agency workers and limits on hiring agency staff, pay equity for agency workers and bringing outsourced activities in-house to provide day-shift jobs to older and disabled workers. Unilever's response was an "offer" consisting of 18 pages of attacks on existing terms and conditions and a refusal to rule out compulsory redundancies. This was followed by an announcement that three of the six Dutch factories would be closed. The unions have responded with a series of ongoing rolling industrial actions.

Through the IUF, Unilever unions in Europe and around the world are laying plans for coordinated action to defend workers from the consequences of the company's single-minded pursuit of short-term financial gains through the sale and closure of profitable sites, outsourcing and casualization.