As Unilever prepares to launch the new global tea company ekaterra on 1st October, workers in Pakistan are protesting against local management’s deliberate deception and misinformation that has undermined job security and created even greater anxiety in a pandemic.
When Unilever Pakistan started the transfer of the Khanewal tea factory to ekaterra on 1st July, the Workers Union Unilever Pakistan (WUUP) requested more information about the terms and conditions of the transition and how union members will transfer to the new business. Management refused to respond, claiming that the union does not have collective bargaining status. This is despite the fact that WUUP represents the majority of workers at the tea factory. WUUP – a member of the IUF-affiliated Pakistan Food Workers Federation (PFWF) – argued that it does not need collective bargaining status to have the right to information about its members’ job security. Management instead misused an emergency safety meeting to make announcements to all employees, giving vague reassurances. When a formal “town hall” meeting of all employees was finally held, no new information was provided and questions by worried union members were ignored.
While the company claims it is only obliged to meet with representatives of the Unilever Employees Federation due to its national collective bargaining status, management conveniently ignores the fact there is no collective bargaining involved. It also ignores well documented corruption and collusion that severely undermined human rights and violated ethical standards in the past. In 2013 the leadership of the Unilever Employees Federation were charged with embezzlement of the workers’ welfare fund, which also implicated people in local management.
Even with the workers welfare fund accounts frozen while under police investigation, Unilever Pakistan management continued to make monthly deductions from workers’ wages. WUUP representatives at Khanewal asked management what will happen to these funds when ekaterra is spun off from Unilever on 1st October. There was no reply. Given past corruption and collusion, Lipton tea workers are worried their entitlements will simply disappear when they move to the new company.
Also unresolved is the fate of 33 WUUP members arbitrarily designated as “surplus” at the Lipton factory. Management refuses to discuss their fate with the union, raising fears they will be forced into redundancy on 1st October.
In recent years management transferred more machinery and work to third parties, reducing job roles at the Lipton factory. Despite company claims that AGA PACK Private Limited in Karachi is a specialized tea business, all of the machinery and equipment is owned by Unilever Pakistan. AGA PACK’s sole specialization is that it provides cheap, non-union labour.
The fact that AGA PACK was given much more information by Unilever Pakistan management about the new business arrangements after 1st October, suggests that ekaterra will maintain these precarious employment arrangements and disguised employment relationships. Instead of a fresh start to overcome the legacy of corruption, collusion and rights violations in the past, ekaterra appears more determined to limit the role of independent unions in the future. Yet the deception and misinformation used to launch its new business risks creating mistrust and uncertainty well beyond the Lipton workers at Khanewal.