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Four years after punishing lockout, Unilever Assam workers still waiting for their union to be recognized

10 June 2011 News
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Business is doing well at Unilever’s personal products factory at Doom Dooma in the Indian state of Assam. But nearly 4 years after management tried to destroy the union with a punishing 6-week lockout, and almost one year since the IUF and Unilever formally concluded an agreement to settle the dispute under the auspices of the UK government, the workers are still waiting for their union to be recognized as their collective bargaining agent.

The workers’ mood is one of deepening frustration. How has this happened?

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 CBA with the new organization was registered with the local authorities – and workers found that their union check-off was being paid to the sham union against their wishes.

On December 5, 2007, the union protested this illegal subsidy to a non-representative trade union to management -  together with a petition with 372 signatures, names and employee numbers. This was followed over the next 3.5 years by no less than 6 similar petitions to management and to the local authorities – all of which were ignored.

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. Nothing happened, either in Doom Dooma or at the NCP (who has sinceadopted vastly improved procedures for addressing and resolving complaints). In June 2008, the NCP suspended the complaint because the legitimate union petitioned the Assam High Court to hold a state-supervised election to determine which organization represented the workers for collective bargaining purposes. The Court took its time. Unilever continued to illegally deduct the check-off subsidy to their own creation.

In February 2010 the High Court finally got around to issuing a decision: it had no jurisdiction to supervise an election, but there was no legal obstacle to the parties agreeing on an election procedure outside the court.

In July 2010, Unilever and the IUF agreed, under the auspices of the NCP, to do just that. The illegal dues check off would cease, the authorities would be asked to conduct an election under agreed conditions, and should the authorities refuse a procedure was ageed upon to hold voluntary elections under the supervision of a mutually agreed third party. The agreement is posted on the website of the UK NCP. Unilever proposed a name; the IUF, after consulting with the union, agreed with the nomination, a retired Supreme Court judge. The election should have been concluded shortly after that. But Unilever has dipped into a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks to thwart this simple procedure from being implemented and prevent the workers at the factory from exercising their rights.

The deductions stopped for a month – and then resumed. Only in February this year did illegal deductions to the yellow union definitely cease. But workers cannot use the checkoff to support the work of their own union – there is no checkoff. And the elections exist only on a paper signed in London, with one excuse after another invoked to explain why they don’t take place. Unilever management, in Mumbai and in London, repeatedly invokes the alleged objections of the management union (which they created) and/or the local authorities – the same authorities who rubberstamped the yellow union’s registration and then the sham ‘CBA’ – as an excuse for not implementing an agreement they signed in the offices of a UK government ministry. They also conveniently overlook the fact that the agreement with the IUF was deliberately constructed to avoid the complications of involving a compliant administration which assented to the lockout, the union-busting and the phoney CBA. All has gone down the corporate memory hole – but only until next year, when the company wlil try again to install a company union against the workers’ wishes.

For 4 long years, workers at the plant have been denied the right to support, with a contribution from their wages, the union they have repeatedly declared should represent them. Verification of membership is a legal requirement for the conclusion of a collective bargaining agreement – and the current CBA, the one which was rammed through in the aftermath of the 6-week lockout, expires next year.

Unilever would appear to be stalling until they get their chance next year to again seek to register a fake CBA signed by a fake organization with fake members. This is supported by the interminable delays, and by the management convocation of a May 10  "Employee Relationship Leadership" meeting during off duty hours at which it was announced that that HUSS (the company union) has started preparing for the next CBA - and that there will be a good settlement in 2012!

By consistently refusing to implement an agreement signed by the IUF in good faith, Unilever has shown contempt for the Assam workers, for their union, for the IUF and for the UK National Contact Point. The IUF will take all necessary action in support of its members in Doom Dooma.