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Jail, bail, threats and dismissals as Nestlé Pakistan dairy workers fight for their rights

9 November 2011 Urgent Action
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Management at Nestle's giant Kabirwala dairy factory in Pakistan - a state-of-the art facility with a feudal industrial relations system - is criminalizing the union's fight for the rights of hundreds of contract workers at the plant.

In retaliation against precarious workers claiming their rights, management stopped the employment of a total of 250 contract workers at the end of September; 107 of these workers remain dismissed. Workers protesting their situation have been violently attacked and 80 contact workers now face criminal charges for defending their legal right to direct, permanent employment as does president Mohammad Hussein Bhatti.

Nestlé management has never liked Bhatti, who has worked at the plant since 1997 with a perfect employment record - until he announced his candidacy for the position of union president in 2006. Management continually sought to prevent this from happening, and fabricated signatures in court petitions, violated a series of court orders, sought to overturn the election results and, when all this failed, dismissed Bhatti from his job. He was reinstated by court order and has remained president of the Kabirwala Employees Union.

But things took an even nastier turn for the worse when, in September 2010, the union voted in a general membership meeting to extend its membership to casual workers and submitted the rules changes to the trade union registrar. In December, the registrar approved the new union constitution. In February 2011 the union began assisting hundreds of the precarious workers at the plant to obtain permanent status by filing cases at the Labour Court. Under Pakistan law, workers employed for nine months have the legal right to be made direct, permanent employees.

The petitions point out that while the workers are formally employed by contractor M. Ramzan and Sons, Nestlé provides the funds for paying their wages, an arrangement designed to avoid taxes and other liabilities by Nestlé Pakistan. The workers are employed on a no work, no pay daily basis, with inferior wages and limited benefits compared with permanent workers at the plant.

Through 31 petitions filed with the help of the union, 199 workers applied for permanent status on February 8. That same day, the court issued "stay orders" enjoining the company from changing their employment status, i.e retaliating by dismissal. In May, a second group of 58 workers petitioned the Labour Court for a change in employment status. The court issued the company with stay orders preventing them from dismissing these workers.

Nestlé didn't like this. Nor did the contractors, so in May Nestlé and the contractors jointly appealed to have the stay orders overturned. The appeal was rejected. Despite this, 35 workers were terminated - by Nestlé management - on June 9. When workers demonstrated against these unlawful terminations, their demonstration came under violent attack.

On July 27, the Labour Court ordered the 35 workers to be reinstated. Management ignored the court, and stopped the employment of what became a total of 250 casual workers, of which 107 remain dismissed.

Police arrested union president Bhatti on fabricated charges on September 29 (see below). When workers demonstrated in his support, police warrants were sworn against 80 individuals and 120 unnamed persons for protesting and blocking the road. Police raided workers' homes at night, arresting many and holding them until they posted over USD 500 in bail.

Over 80 workers and the union president are currently free on bail. On October 10, Bhatti was suspended from his job, and has been repeatedly suspended since. He is not allowed to enter the factory.

Muhammad Ashfaq Butt, who has been a contract worker at the Kabirwala factory for 5 years, describes their struggle for their rights and the ferocious repression it has engendered:

"I joined Nestle as an assistant and after two years I was promoted to machine operator. As contract workers we performed overtime when told it was necessary but were never paid. When we asked about overtime payment, or not performing overtime, we were threatened with the loss of our jobs. The contractor registered so many workers that hardly any ever got 26 days of work in a month. The system is full of bribery and corruption.

"I was actively involved when the union changed its constitution and provided us an opportunity to join in September 2010. At that time the union was negotiating its charter of demands. On October 14, the shift manager told me 'Because you are involved with the union and provoking workers, from tomorrow your gate is closed'. In November I filed a case in the labour court and was reinstated with full back pay. When I went to the factory, the HR manager met me at the gate and refused the court order, telling me 'You will not work in this factory'. Management appealed my reinstatement, and since then it's been tied up in a round of appeals, reviews and contempt of court petitions because every time management was ordered to reinstate me they refused.

"During this period I was threatened by police, goons and management. The police approached my family and relatives and also threatened them. Management involved me in many fabricated cases to use police pressure. On September 5 I was on the way home on my motorbike when three people chased me and took all my court documents, snatched my mobile phone, wallet and motorbike. Before leaving they warned me to stay away from the Nestle factory and withdraw the legal cases.

"On September 24 I filed another contempt of court case against the HR Manager for failing to reinstate me. On 26 September the High Court supported my case, ordering the HR manager to show cause. But the next day he called some workers into his office, claimed later that they had attacked him and filed a police complaint which included myself and the union president as being connected with the incident. The police also included my name in the complaint against more than 80 workers on September 29. I was arrested on October 1 and remained in jail for 16 days, until I was able to post bail.

"Management has involved me in 4 police cases and I am on bail in all four cases. Management is trying very hard to cancel my bails because they don't want to see me around the factory."

'Good food, good life'? Not if you work at Nestlé Kabirwala and claim your rights. Stop Nespressure on Pakistan dairy workers!

Click here to send a message to Nestlé demanding an end to the criminalization of casual workers fighting for their rights. Corporate management in Vevey must take action now to ensure that all charges are dropped against the Kabirwala contract workers and that all those dismissed are reinstated and made direct, permanent employees in accordance with the law. Charges must be dropped against union president Bhatti and management must cease its interference in the union.