Published: 13/07/2010

The latest video interview with Nestlé Chair Peter Brabeck takes place on the balcony at company headquarters in Vevey Switzerland, with Lake Geneva and the snow-capped Alps shining in the background. Brabeck relates his rise from ice cream salesman to head of the world’s largest food company, with the reporter smiling approvingly: “You’ve come a long way.” You cannot escape promotion, explains Brabeck, if you’re just a bit better (expressed with mathematical precision as 5% better).

Youth unemployment briefly darkens the alpine scenery, as Brabeck expresses his “sorrow” over the high rate of youth unemployment in Europe. His solution? “Don’t stop learning”, and “Keep your mind open” while awaiting the next upturn.

The reporter reminds Brabeck that Nestlé did quite well during the latest crisis; Brabeck (who needs no reminder) grins in approval. Brabeck praises the loyalty of long-serving company employees. The conversation turns to Nestlé’s proprietary CSR policy “Creating Shared Value”. Brabeck explains that it is an integral part of the business model: “I don’t have to give back to society because I haven’t been stealing from society.” Brabeck describes Creating Shared Value as “something completely new.” The reporter affirms that CSR always comes back “100-fold” to the company in the form of profits, Brabeck by now is beaming: “It is a beautiful thing.”

Brabeck elaborates for a few seconds on the ‘rural development’ aspect of Creating Shared Value: Nestlé, we learn, provides technical assistance, education and microfinancing to its suppliers. The reporter sees no need to ask about the terms of these supplier contracts. The conversation passes to water, and Nestlé’s pioneering role. The reporter declares that the UN had had its water decade, but it took “a leader in the private sector” to get things moving. Brabeck smiles knowingly. There is no need to discuss the actual content of the water policy – time presses, and the interview comes to a close. “You’ve done it all”, says the reporter, as we catch a last glimpse of the Alps.

This uninspired piece of sycophantic, bootlicking journalism would be thoroughly unremarkable, apart from its clumsy amateurishness, were it not produced by the United Nations’ ILO.

The chat with Brabeck appears in an ILO series called “Our Workplace”: “A web-based television program produced by the International Labour Organization’s Department of Communication featuring prominent figures in the world of work. In conversation with Our Workplace host Zohreh Tabatabai, the program illuminates the personalities behind the podiums and the policies, as well as the people in the field who are making a difference in improving our life at work.”

The Brabeck “Our Workplace” episode contains not a single reference to an actual workplace, workers, unions, rights at work or industrial relations. The private sector contribution to job creation, not to speak of Nestlé’s, is completely bypassed in the discussion of unemployment, apart from Brabeck’s remark that they are trying to hire more apprentices (presumably delivered through the public education system). The reporter doesn’t ask how exhorting youth to “keep learning” as the antidote to high, persistent unemployment fits with the Global Jobs Pact, nor does she ask how Nestlé-driven “rural development” contributes to what the ILO calls decent work.

The ILO might have asked whether Nestlé’s water policy was aimed at securing universal access to water as a public good, or securing supplies for Nestlé’s manufacturing operations. They chose not to. In response to Brabeck’s citation of lengthy service for company employees they might have asked how Nestlé positioned itself in the general trend towards reducing direct employment through outsourcing and casualization. What about, for example, the situation of the growing number of workers who produce Nestlé products but aren’t employed by Nestlé, and can’t join unions of Nestlé workers? Brabeck’s former sales job was outsourced years ago -.that career path, along with countless others, no longer exists. Rather than enthusing about 100% returns from CSR, the ILO might have asked why, in the latest Creating Shared Value Report, which Nestlé falsely claims to be in compliance with the reporting requirements of the Global Reporting Initiative (IUF Downgrades Nestlé CSR Rating from B+ to Junk), there is no mention of employee salaries, benefits, benefits denied to non-permanent workers, employee turnover, collective bargaining, minimum notice periods with respect to operational changes or taxes paid? Or why, given the injunction to “keep learning”, the only training program mentioned in any detail in the latest Creating Shared Value is in fact the top-level management training program in Vevey.

Had the interviewer been guided by the ILO’s declared mission of “promoting rights at work, encouraging opportunities for decent employment, enhancing social protection and strengthening dialogue on work-related issues”, the video might have been of some value, or at least slightly illuminated “the personality behind the podium.” Apart from what it tells us about the ILO, the interview is worse than useless – it is an insult to those who believe that the ILO has a crucial role to play in the world.

We certainly don’t blame Brabeck for not passing up a UN-sponsored publicity spot. It is not the first time, nor in all likelihood the last, given the growth of corporate influence at all levels of the UN system. But if the ILO is serious about defending its standards setting role, it needs to be called to account on this occasion.