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The Unilever CSR Chronicles: Union-Busting Asian Management Sets New Standards

Posted to the IUF website 12-Feb-2008

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Unilever's Asian management continues to advance from Award to Award. Last October, it won (in close succession) the "Commendation Certification for Significant Achievement in Human Resources Excellence" and the Asian Corporate Social Responsibility "Excellence Award" in the Best Workplace Practices category. The company also received the Excellence Award in the Poverty Alleviation division.

However this abundance of awards is not without problems. Intense competition between Unilever's Pakistan and Indian managements in the union-busting department creates genuine dilemmas for those bestowing the prizes - and no management wants to be number 2. Hindustan Unilever has also recently displayed hitherto unsuspected literary creativity, leading objective observers of the CSR process to ask whether a new category shouldn't be created: "Literary Excellence in the Service of Even Better Human Resources Practices for Poverty Alleviation". Consider the following, for example.

Following a 6-week lockout of union members at its plant in Doom Dooma, Assam last summer, Unilever's Indian management required workers to sign a form – as a condition for returning to work - renouncing membership in their union HHLWU and joining a hastily-created company union called HUSS. When the workers challenged the legitimacy of this procedure, arguing that the signatures had been obtained under duress, and indicated that they did not wish to pay dues to this organization nor have it represent them for collective bargaining, management turned to new methods to destroy the legitimate union organization.

On February 6, workers on all three shifts had a new letter handed to them for signature by HUSS officers. The undated letter, written in English, is in the form of a message to the Assistant Labour Commissioner. It states "I am a poor youth of Assam who want to work in an established company such as Hindustan Unilever Limited for the sustenance of my family," and goes on to "Humbly seek your interference and necessary help to sustain livelihood for me and my family and also ensure the existence of our factory which is the only means of sustenance for people like us who live in this remote corner of Assam." In a neat application of the time-honored technique of accusing your opponent of doing what you are planning or already doing, the letter claims that HHLWU members are seeking to collect signatures by coercion!

While this letter represented a literary advance on the rather prosaic letters which workers had to sign to be allowed back to work, it aroused little enthusiasm. This may be because the mother tongue of Unilever workers in Doom Dooma is Assamese rather than English. Or it may be due to insufficient appreciation of management's excellence in workplace relations.

To more fully impress upon workers the meaning of the letter, management therefore placed at the disposal of the yellow union the factory's Total Productivity Management Office (TPM). Over the next 3 days, HUSS officers, together with Unilever TPM officer Simanta Bardoli, used the TPM office to explain to workers who didn't understand the purpose of the letter that they were seeking their signatures In order to negotiate a new long-term collective bargaining agreement, since the existing CBA (negotiated by the HHLWU) expires on April 1. (This would establish HUSS as the sole collective bargaining agent for the workers.) When workers pointed out that this explanation didn't accord with their understanding of the letter, the manager forcefully informed them that if they failed to sign, Hindustan Unilever management had no choice but to close the factory!

Hindustan Unilever scores (again) high marks for creativity. The union is bringing these practices to the attention of corporate management and the relevant authorities. The IUF for its part is informing its members and the UK government's National Contact Point for monitoring compliance with the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises (which prohibit management from invoking the threat of production transfers in the context of an industrial dispute). We'll also be informing the judges and juries of the next round of CSR awards, so that Unilever's achievements are given the recognition they merit.

Future articles in The Unilever CSR Chronicles will examine, among other issues, Hindustan Unilever's consistently skillful exploitation of tax competition between Indian states in order to maximize operating profits through closures and manufacturing relocations. "Commendation Certification for Excellence in Tax Arbitrage for Poverty Alleviation"? "Roundtable on Sustainable Share Buybacks"? Watch this space…