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Sexual Harassment in Poland: PepsiCo Still Refuses to Accept Responsibility

Posted to the IUF website 20-Jul-2005

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- From the Swedish Foodworkers' Union

Malin Klingzell-Brulin is the editor of M�l & Medel, the journal of the Swedish Foodworkers' Union (Livs). On June 22-23, she visited Poland as part of a delegation organized by the IUF and Solidarnosc to investigate the situation of the eight women workers from PepsiCo's Frito-Lay plant near Warsaw who have been fired or forced to resign as a result of sexual harassment by a supervisor. Her report on the visit originally appeared in M�l & Medel Nr. 7-8 for July/August 2005.

Time and time again, their colleague disappeared into the supervisor�s office. The other women had their misgivings. When she was suddenly dismissed, the week before Christmas, they began talking about what had been going on for some time but no one had dared mention � the sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a difficult subject to talk about. But now, for the first time, they have started discussing the matter in a large group, and it turns out that nearly everyone has experienced it, either personally or as a witness to the harassment of others.

It�s a difficult moment. But it�s also an incredible relief to get things out in the open. To realise that one is not alone lightens the burden.

Many recall the workmate who got pregnant and was dismissed. That was three years ago. A supervisor was said to be the father of the child. When the story got round her husband committed suicide, he hanged himself. The supervisor was advised to give in his notice, the only aftermath. No one can say for sure if the story is true, because it was never properly investigated.

The women are employed at PepsiCo�s snack food plant Frito-Lay near Warsaw and the discussion takes place during a break. What they don�t know is that someone is listening and passing everything on to the management. Perhaps this person sees this as an opportunity to advancement. Or perhaps they have a chip on their shoulder.

The day they�ll never forget

Christmas is approaching. There�s a lot to do, food to cook, a tree to decorate, presents to buy. After Christmas, they�ll be returning to the packaging unit at the plant. Work as usual. But the 29th of December 2004 is a day they�ll never forget.

Elzbieta is having her break. She has just lit a cigarette when her supervisor approaches and tells her to stop smoking and follow him. His serious tone frightens her. She does as she is told and follows him in silence. He takes her to the office where the personnel manager is waiting. He explains that she is no longer wanted at the plant. The reasons for this are unclear.

She doesn�t understand, she is totally stunned. On the table in front of her are two documents that she can choose to sign. The first says she is resigning at her own request, with a certain compensation. The second is a note of dismissal on grounds of negligence at work.

She feels faint. What are they saying? Dismissed? Why? She can�t think clearly. Her husband is unemployed. She has four kids to feed. How are they going to survive? She signs the paper that gives her some compensation, the equivalent of three months� wages. She feels she has no choice.

After Elzbieta, the other women who have discussed the sexual harassment are summoned one after the other. The word has got round. By now they all know what to expect.

Grazyna is the third to be sent for by the supervisor. It is extremely unpleasant, since he is the very supervisor who has been harassing her.

Good Work Award

The last woman to be called into the office is Alexandra. Her mates can�t believe their eyes. They have just been consoling her and saying that she has nothing to fear. Only a few weeks ago she got an award for doing her job so well.

Alexandra opts for resignation, like six of the eight women. They can�t afford to forego the economic compensation. One by one, they come out of the personnel office. They each get a black plastic liner in which to put their personal belongings. Then they are told to leave the plant immediately.

Never before in the history of the plant have so many people been dismissed in one day. And it is probably no coincidence that it happened just when their union representative had the day off and was not there to help them.

The sacked women wait for each other outside the plant gates. They are convinced that their conversation about sexual harassment is at the bottom of their dismissal. The next day, they meet up with their union president at the local Solidarnosc office, who advises them to write down their statements of what took place. Without written documentation it is impossible to pursue a case.

On January 3 they file a report of sexual harassment with the Labour Court. A few days later, Solidarnosc representatives have a meeting with the women�s employer. They hope by means of negotiation to persuade the company to honour its responsibilities, investigate the charges and reinstate the women. But the management flatly refuses.

Media Headlines

The women maintain their allegations. Three of them claim that they have been victims of sexual harassment. Five others substantiate their claims. Polish press and television hear about the case and give it huge media coverage.

Two legal cases are brought: one court will try the cases according to labour legislation and the other from a criminal justice perspective. This leads to the arrest of the supervisor, but he continues to get his salary from the company, which also provides him with expensive legal counsel for his defence. The women neither get their jobs back nor compensation for lost income.

By the end of January, the IUF advises its affiliates to protest against the events and demand the immediate reinstatement of all the workers who were dismissed or pressured to resign due to their attempts to stop sexual harassment.

The IUF maintains that PepsiCo, by refraining from taking the necessary measures to protect its employees from sexual harassment, is in breach of both European and Polish law, as well as the human rights of its employees.

Violating its own code

The IUF also notes that PepsiCo, in its Worldwide Code of Conduct undertakes to �provide a workplace free from all forms of discrimination, including sexual and other forms of harassment.�

M�l & Medel wrote about the PepsiCo case in March (issue No. 3, 2005). Instead of investigating the allegations, the management claims that the women�s report is an attempt to blackmail the company. Solidarnosc suspects that detectives have been employed to keep tabs on the women and their activities.

Solidarnosc launches a petition in support of the women, which so far some 180,000 people in Poland have signed. In mid-May, a march takes place in Warsaw. But the company refuses to listen. As time goes by, the women�s situation worsens. There are rumours that production is being relocated abroad, to the Ukraine, on account of the women�s actions. Unemployment in the region is very high, more than 20 per cent. They have difficulties finding new jobs other than casual employment.

Nordic campaign launched

In early June, the Nordic Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers� Associations decides to use all its available means to publicise PepsiCo�s total failure to protect the human rights of its employees. The Union also decides to dispatch a delegation of trade union representatives and trade union journalists to Poland.

We who participate in the delegation meet seven of the women on 22 June at the office of Solidarnosc in Warsaw. Also attending this meeting are union representatives from local, regional and central level. The accounts we hear are shattering. The company�s behaviour is ruthless in view of these women�s social situation. How can the company maintain that the women are doing this for their own gain? It appears wholly unlikely that their accounts are anything but the truth. The issue will be resolved in court, and that will give us an answer in writing.

The women�s legal representative from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights is there. He expresses his concern for the outcome of the legal process if we write about the sexual harassment in detail. Therefore, we are leaving out any information of that kind.

The dismissed women live a secluded life. Not many people know what they have been through. We find that out the next day, when we visit three of the women at home in the small town of Zerard�w, some 15 kilometres from the PepsiCo plant.

Everyone knows everything about everyone

To talk about sexual harassment is shameful, especially in a small village where everyone knows everything about their neighbours. At the plant most of their former colleagues have turned against the women. Moreover, the wife of the arrested supervisor has launched her own campaign to clear his reputation. This has made the headlines in the gossip press.

A narrow staircase leads up to Elzbieta�s apartment in one of the council estates. She has four children. Both she and her husband are unemployed. We manage to squeeze into the small front room to listen to her story. She appears tired and troubled. It has been a hard time for her.

�We hardly have enough money for food. We haven�t been able to pay the rent for several months,� she tells us.

When she was forced to resign on 29 December, she had been at the plant for seven years. Once more, she relates what took place.

�It all happened so fast. All I could think about was the children, and where we would get money to survive.�

It all seemed so unreal, she says. It was not until later, when she had time to think, that she linked the whole affair to their conversation about sexual harassment.

Alexandra lives in a small apartment a few flights up in another of the council houses. She is a single mother with a 12-year-old son. She tells us proudly that she has worked for nine years at the plant, and that she has only had eleven days� sick-leave, not on account of any illness of her own, but because her son was unwell.

Alexandra tried to challenge the management when she was summoned to the office.

�A few weeks earlier, I had been rewarded for doing my job so well. It seemed totally unreasonable that I should be sacked on grounds of low productivity shortly after,� she says.

�I tried to reason with the supervisor and the manager. I asked if they were doing this because I knew too much about what went on at the plant, but they just laughed at me.�

The last woman we meet is Grazyna. She lives with her husband and two children out in the country in a house she inherited. Outwardly, this is an idyll compared to the homes of the other women. Financially, her situation is also slightly better. But her mental anguish is all the greater. Whereas the other women we met had witnessed the harassment, Grazyna was subjected toit. It�s not easy to talk about it, but she makes a try, so that we can understand more clearly.

She is convinced that she was dismissed because they started talking about what was going on at the plant, and because she said no to the supervisor�s demands for sexual favours.

What Code of Conduct?

The company�s Code of Conduct is unknown to her. She has never heard it mentioned in the nine years she�s been at the plant. None of the other women have heard of it either. The company claims that all employees have been informed, but that does not seem to be the case.

"What�s your dream right now?"

�Getting a job.�

She is unsure, however, if it will be possible to return to the plant even if they do win the case against the company. It won�t be easy working alongside those who took a stand against her. And she is rather dejected when it comes to the trial, which could take several years.

�It seems to me that the company is fighting a war of nerves, and it is hard to stick it out to the end when you have neither work nor money.�


You can send a message to PepsiCo condemning their failure to assume responsibility and calling on the company to promptly begin negotiations with the union to find a settlement acceptable to the victims by clicking here.