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Unilever Assam workers waiting for their rights: 5 years on and counting

31 May 2012 Feature
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How long does it take for Unilever, the company whose Business Principles and  Supplier Codes "embody our commitment to the human dignity and labour rights of our employees and suppliers", to honor an agreement on fundamental trade union rights for a group of workers in its highly profitable Indian operations? Workers at the company's factory in the state of Assam are asking that question, and scratching their heads.

On July 15, 2007 a dispute over the breach of a provision in the CBA led to a lockout of the Hindustan Lever Workers' Union's 700 members. Management's condition for ending the lockout was that the legitimate union disband and that all workers transfer their membership to a hastily improvised construction dubbed the Hindustan Unilever Democratic Workers Union (HUSS). Workers were forced to sign forms to this effect as a condition for returning to work on September 3. Shortly after this, a collective agreement signed by management with the organization it created was registered with the local authorities.

In October 2007, the IUF followed a complaint about these union-busting practices with the UK National Contact Point responsible for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises. In July 2010, Unilever and the IUF agreed, in a UK ministry, to a procedure to allow the workers to choose their union representation under the supervision of a mutually-agreed third party. The agreement is posted on the website of the UK National Contact Point.

Unilever has not implemented this agreement - nearly two years after it was signed - and the union it sponsored is preparing to sign a new contract with the company, violating the Assam workers' right to freely choose the union they want to belong to and to negotiate for them for yet another 4 years.

Unilever's commitment to the agreements it signs, not to speak of its commitment to ensuring the dignity and rights of its employees, seems to be infinitely flexible. Buyer beware.