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.
Along with Idilia Foods’ Nocilla chocolate hazelnut spread and Shezan International’s Shezan juices, the Kolson pasta products of Lotte Kolson were manufactured at the Hashem Foods factory where a tragic fire killed dozens of workers on 8 July and dozens more suffered serious injuries.
Despite the systematic exploitation of child labour at Hashem Foods factory for a number of years and multiple violations of labour laws and fire safety regulations, Lotte Kolson failed to conduct any form of auditing or due diligence that would reveal these abuses. In fact both Kolson in Pakistan and Lotte in Korea have a history of aggressive trade union rights violations and preventing workers from forming unions. The abusive conditions at Hashem Foods certainly fit their business model.
Lotte Kolson is a Pakistan-based food company wholly owned by Lotte Corporation headquartered in Korea. Lotte acquired Kolson in 2010 and renamed it Lotte Kolson.
From 16 to 18 July 2021, management of Sajeeb Group summoned 24 relatives of workers who died in the fire to give them compensation of BDT 200,000 [EUR 1,962 ; USD 2,317] for each worker who died. This included the under-aged workers, some as young as 11 years old.
The husband and son of Nazma who died in the factory fire on 8 July. Nazmul, 13, also worked in the factory. He had already finished his shift and left the factory when the fire broke out.
To receive a cheque for BDT 200,000 the relatives were instructed to sign a “receipt”. The receipt was in fact a legal disclaimer for any further liability, denying any future compensation claims by the family. The majority of those signing could not read the document and no one was permitted to keep a copy.
A trade union volunteer from the Sajeeb Group Workers Justice Committee delivers rice to the home of a victim’s family.
By taking advantage of the emotional distress and the extreme economic hardship of the families of the victims, Sajeeb Group forced them to give up the right to any further financial claims or compensation. This is before any official investigation has been concluded, and before any independent public inquiry has been held.
The company now claims that the document signed by desperate family members is legally binding. This is despite the fact that Sajeeb Group is under investigation for several violations of the law under three separate investigations. The owner and senior management face criminal charges including homicide. Yet Sajeeb Group reasserts the “receipt” is a valid legal document and that if the families try to claim any more compensation they will be prosecuted.
The Sajeeb Group Workers’ Justice Committee denounced this action by the company as immoral and illegal. Compensation must be determined as part of a comprehensive investigation into what happened and why. This requires an independent public inquiry. The independent public inquiry will refer to a number of measures, including International Labour Convention No. 121 on Employment Injury Benefits, as a basis for determining compensation. It cannot simply be the decision of Sajeeb Group that the life of a worker is worth USD 2,317.
Workers identified the hazelnut and chocolate spread manufactured under the brand name Nocilla for Spanish company Idilia Foods as one of the main food products made on the third floor of the Hashem Foods factory. Early reports suggest that a pipeline carrying edible oil from one floor to another exploded.
According to a news report on 9 July, fire fighters said that: “Edible oil used as raw material to make a chocolate and hazelnut spread fuelled the fire at Hashem Foods Ltd factory that kept burning for around 24 hours.” The report identified the edible oil as a Nocilla ingredient.
Hashem Foods management ignored warning notices on fire safety and child labour a month before the tragic fire that killed an unknown number of workers, including children as young as 11 years old.
Months before the tragic fire at Hashem Foods factory, management ignored notices issued by the fire services department concerning the lack of fire safety and in particular the lack of fire-fighting equipment. At that time the inspectors saw there was child labour in the factory.
When inspectors from the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) visited the factory on June 8, 2021, to inspect health and safety conditions, they also observed child labour blatantly exploited in the factory. DIFE then issued a notice to the factory management regarding the employment of child labour in violation of the law. Hashem Foods management and its parent company Sajeeb Group simply ignored these notices and no action was taken by any of the government authorities.
A week later the fire broke out in the factory fueled by highly flammable chemicals and plastic packaging stored on the second floor, while doors and exits on the third floor were blocked. An unknown number of workers – including children – died or were seriously injured. Three of the children who jumped from the third floor are hospitalized in critical condition.
Although the official death toll is 52, it should be noted that this was announced on the morning of Friday July 9 before the fire was extinguished and a full day before fire fighters could access the fourth and fifth floors.
Just one week before the tragic fire at Hashem Foods factory workers held a protest action over unpaid wages and unpaid overtime. The Daily Inqilab interviewed protesting workers on July 1, 2021, who said, “the higher authorities of the factory threatened to beat and dismiss the workers if they talked about overtime, arrears of salary and salary increase.”
Companies with business relationships with Hashem Foods, including Shezan International and Kolson Lotte in Pakistan, Idilia Foods from Spain and US-based Mondelez International, clearly failed in their human rights due diligence. Despite requests by IUF-affiliated trade unions to discuss this tragedy and their responsibility, they have refused to respond.
After years of working in the luxurious Naga World Hotel Casino complex in Phnom Penh, over 1,300 workers were thrown out in a mass redundancy program.
Naga Corp, “one of the world’s most profitable gaming companies, and the largest gaming entertainment company in the Mekong Region“, claims the drastic cuts were necessary due to economic hardship.
But the real economic hardship is faced by workers who were already among the working poor due to low wages and the refusal of the company to bargain wages with the union, LRSU.
With wage cuts and non-payment of wages during the pandemic, workers ended up deeper in poverty. Now their forced redundancy has driven them even further into poverty and debt.
Please support the unfairly terminated workers at Naga World Hotel Casino by sending a protest message to the company. Click here to go to the IUF urgent action page to add your outrage and to demand decency!