In 1997 Nestlé UK officially recognized the problem of Repetitive Strain Injuries among its production workers who had to repeat the same motion over and over again. It announced that it was developing a program to reduce the occurence of this common work injury.
In the same year Nestlé management in Brazil denied the existence of this workplace injury (which was in fact widespread), and continued its abusive practice of dismissing workers (mainly young women)with this injury rather than addressing the root causes of the problem.
At that time the IUF Latin American regional office produced a short film featuring one of the Brazilian women workers disabled by this work injury who had been fired by Nestlé.
It seems that four years later Nestlé continues to place a lower value of the health and safety of its employees in Brazil than it does in Western Europe. What follows is an essay in the IUF Latin American Regional Publication SIREL by a medical doctor who serves as consultant to the IUF Latin American Regional Secretariat on health and safety.
Nestlé:”YOU ARE THE SPICE OF LIFE”
With this slogan, the powerful Swiss food transnational hopes to disseminate a modern, humane image to go with its industrial practices. I have to say that, as a doctor, I have always thought highly of the company, and felt that most people identified it with wholesome food.
However, for some time now I have been observing investigations by some NGOs that have led to discussion on the real benefits derived from the massive propaganda that Nestlé puts out in the various communications media, influencing – to take but one example – the consumption of its products by young children, instead of encouraging consumption of their mothers’ natural milk. On a personal note, the working conditions and their consequences for some workers suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) now force me to question Nestlé’s behaviour.
In April 2001, I was consulted by María Alice, a worker at a Nestlé plant in the Brazilian interior. She had pains in her shoulders, wrists and elbows, and they were getting worse and causing her productivity at work to fall. María Alice underwent an electroneuromyography examination, and the result was clear: carpal tunnel syndrome of the left and right wrists. A further ultra-sound examination revealed tendinopathy of the wrist extensors.
She told me she had been to see the company doctor, but he had so far paid little attention to her complaints, saying it was normal and suggesting each time that she should go back to work. After seeing other doctors, she went to a meeting organised by her trade union, and attended by this expert from the IUF. He then decided to ask us for an assessment of her case.
After looking into her clinical and employment history – she brought me this information herself – I was in no doubt: she had Repetitive Strain Injury and, in accordance with the law, I asked for her to assessed on the basis of my diagnosis. Much to my surprise, a few days later I received a letter from the company doctor; it was also signed by the head of Human Resources, which proved that there had been a clinical discussion of the case between non-medical professionals. The letter disagreed with my diagnosis, and suggested – the exact words were ‘the diagnosis was influenced by the patient’ – that the worker had possibly tried to get me to come up with an incorrect diagnosis.
I confess that I was taken aback by the attitude of these two professionals employed by Nestlé. I thought it was right to hand the letter over to María Alice so that she knew what professionals in the company thought about her case; on reading the letter, she too was surprised, and said that when she had been to her next consultation, she would bring me some news.
Ten days later, she came and told me about the result of her consultation, and brought with her more documents and other cases of RSI-sufferers in Nestlé: two female employees of the Swiss transnational had been dismissed despite suffering from the same symptoms as RSI, and one of them even had a certificate from a Labour Court medical expert stating that she had RSI as a result of the working conditions at Nestlé. María Alice said that the company’s scepticism and distrust were humiliating, and had caused widespread anger among her colleagues. What will the doctor at the Nestlé plant have to say about these cases?
Author: Dr. Roberto Ruiz, Health and Safety Department, IUF Latin American Region, 3 December 2001