A day after Barry Callebaut terminated the elected trade union representative of the Barry Callebaut Employees Union (BCEU) in Baramati, India, on November 6, 2023, national management offered to sign a collective agreement with the union. But on one condition. BCEU must state that all of the rights violations and abuses by the management that occurred over the past 12 months are untrue. In other words, for union members to exercise their collective bargaining rights, the union must lie. The assumption is that the withdrawal of all the (well-documented) allegations will allow the company to claim it was always in compliance.
After months of pressure and harassment and the victimization of the union’s elected General Secretary – ultimately ending in his unfair termination – union membership fell from 28 to just 18. But the global company still wants the remaining 18 workers to say it was all untrue. In return they will be allowed to have a collective agreement that will bring economic benefits to their families. In a decent world this would be seen for what it is – the bullying of workers in an impoverished rural community by a corporate giant.
The refusal of Barry Callebaut to remedy the rights issues at its Baramati factory and respect the fundamental right of all workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining raises serious questions about how it operates as a global company. From the outset of the dispute, global management first denied any non-compliance without investigating. Only after questions were raised by representatives of Barry Callebaut employees in Europe did corporate management finally investigate beyond making a few phone calls. Yet in the following months it became clear that every reply and every action by the company was determined by local management in Baramati. The very same people involved in the rights violations.
This raises serious questions about how Barry Callebaut views compliance and how it addresses allegations of rights violations. Despite all of its global policies and commitments, the approach is first to deny and defend, then to ask those directly involved whether they did it. This then generates sufficient evidence to justify the initial denial.
If this is the company’s approach, then human rights due diligence simply will not work. This then raises questions about all other forms of human rights violations (including modern slavery and child labor) that the company claims are untrue or are now resolved.
Even more remarkable is that major global food companies that are supplied by Barry Callebaut were asked by unions to investigate and carry out their own human rights due diligence. So they asked Barry Callebaut. That was the extent of it. More rigorous due diligence involved longer conversations with Barry Callebaut. The same replies came back. No one spoke to the union. No one spoke to the workers involved.
The story that local management tells – which is retold by Barry Callebaut – is that the union General Secretary was asleep on the job and the contract worker he was supposed to be supervising was asleep inside a machine. They add: imagine the tragedy if someone had turned the machine on! This phrase is repeated by national and regional corporate management, global management, and the companies supplied by Barry Callebaut – all who claimed to have conducted their own due diligence.
Early in the dispute it was agreed that the union General Secretary, Rajesh, had fallen asleep while on duty. He was sitting on the floor because there is no seating in the production area, and fell asleep for about15 minutes. As anyone in the Baramati factory knows, this happens all the time. No doubt it needs to be rectified with better work arrangements and seating.
But in this case the supervisor secretly took photos of Rajesh then circulated them. When Rajesh later asked the supervisor to delete photos, local management accused him of “tampering with evidence”. The same phrase is repeated at all levels of Barry Callebaut and the company’s buyers. But evidence of what? Given the mismanagement of schedules and working time it is common at the factory that workers sleep for short periods of time. What about the lack of seating? If anyone saw a photo of a worker in Europe sitting on the floor, they would ask, “Why is he on the floor?” But no one at any level in all their due diligence asked why or investigated this. (Is the real answer, “because it’s India?”)
The horror story we are told is that a contract worker sleeping inside a machine that he was tasked to clean. Rajesh was supposedly supervising this worker. It is incredibly dangerous and unacceptable. Of that there is no doubt. But no one investigated why or how this happened.
Why was the overworked, underpaid contract worker asleep inside a machine?
Local management’s horror scenario (“what if the machine was turned on?”) is repeated everywhere. But no one asked:
How would it be possible to turn the machine on?
Aren’t machines at Barry Callebaut’s India operations locked when they are being cleaned?
There were also no questions about the failure of management to ensure safety standards and to supervise third party contract workers. In fact there were no questions at all about safety standards or measures to ensure a safe workplace (which are fundamental rights included in human rights due diligence).
The reason no one asked these questions is because terminating an employee for falling asleep for 15 minutes would be seen as excessive. It could lead to questions about why Rajesh was treated more harshly (because he is the General Secretary of a union that local management cannot control?) Therefore, tampering with evidence (asking a supervisor to delete photos taken on his private phone) and risking the life a contract worker (“what if the machine was turned on?”) justifies termination.
No one asked any questions beyond the answers already given by local management. That in itself is a failure of human rights diligence and sends a warning signal regarding both compliance and corporate governance.
The fact that global companies that buy chocolate ingredients from Barry Callebaut also did not ask these questions suggests that due diligence has simply not been done.