Investigative reporters at TSR, the French-language Swiss television station, have revealed how, in 2003, Nestlé infiltrated a group of private citizens in Lausanne who were working on a critical exposé of the company.
On June 12, Swiss television aired the results of an investigation which began earlier this year when the Swiss chapter of Transparency International received a call on its hotline referring to an undercover affair involving the private security firm Securitas, Nestlé, the world's biggest food company, and the activist organisation, Attac.
The Swiss television investigation revealed that, in the autumn of 2003, a Securitas agent infiltrated a group of seven Attac members in Lausanne who had just begun working on a book about Nestlé focussing on issues such as GM crops and water privatisation but also dealing with labour issues. The new member was welcomed into the working group and even into the homes of its members and enjoyed full access to the group's research, sources, and contacts in and outside Switzerland. She produced written reports for her employer and there is evidence that she met at least once with Nestlé management at the company's headquarters in Vevey. Following the publication of the book in June 2004, she left the group and literally disappeared - all attempts by the others to keep in contact with her by phone and e-mail failed. And it wasn't until a few months ago, when approached by the television journalists, that the group realised why their erstwhile member had left without a trace.
By way of justification, Nestlé issued a statement to the television company referring to the need to protect its property during the 2003 G8 summit, which took place in Evian, in France, across Lake Geneva. Nestlé continues to trot out this statement - including at the meeting of the European Works Council on June 24 - as activists and politicians and Nestlé employees demand answers. But the G8 summit took place on June 1-3, 2003, three months before the surveillance began. Furthermore, the German-language Swiss weekly, WOZ, has since revealed that Securitas was still recruiting for this undercover job in the autumn of 2003. In its June 26 issue it published fragments of an interview with a man who went through a recruitment process with Securitas at that time. He recalled that the Securitas recruiter told him that the firm had been mandated by "a big company to infiltrate an organisation in order to gather information about their activities" and that the job would involve "attending meetings of a working group of the Attac branch of the canton of Vaud, which was researching the business of big companies". The man turned down the job and never spoke of it since out of fear of reprisal.
Activists and trade unionists in Switzerland, and in Germany and France, where this affair has received media attention, are asking themselves how far Nestlé has gone and will go to monitor, contain and control critical voices. Attac Switzerland has initiated civil action against Nestlé and Securitas for invasion of privacy and violation of the data protection act as well as filed criminal charges. Members of parliament have brought motions at cantonal and federal level. Nestlé's actions constitute a gross violation of freedom of expression and of basic democratic rights and prove yet again the authoritarian approach to criticism and an inability to face up to wrongdoing which is part of the fabric of the company.
"We have to be careful that they do not get too much influence"
This remark was made by former Nestlé CEO Helmut Maucher in an article he wrote in December 1997 for the Financial Times. He was referring to NGOs. As newly-elected head of the International Chamber of Commerce, he was voicing his concern over the ability of environmental and human rights NGOs to be heard within the UN system and advocated more influence and visibility for business, arguing that "business is not just another pressure group but a resource that will help them [governments] set the right rules". Maucher was no longer Nestlé CEO at the time (while retaining his seat on the board of directors) but continued shaping company policy for several years into Peter Brabeck's reign. While working behind the scenes and under cover to ensure that civil society organisations - including trade unions - "do not get too much influence", Nestlé has managed to achieve the kind of visibility and role of authority that the authoritarian Maucher envisaged as the company's entitlement. Witness how easy it is for Nestlé to air its views - trite and patently manipulative though they may be - on GMOs, water and biofuels in the media. Under these circumstances it could not have been easy for the Swiss television journalists to carry out their investigation and broadcast the results - in Nestlé's own back yard.
To view the 36-minute television programme in French, click here.
Click here for the Italian-dubbed version.
For a summary broadcast by German-language Swiss television, click here.