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European Unilever Workers Call for Company to Take Action on Musim Mas Palm Oil

Posted to the IUF website 21-Mar-2006

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The Anglo-Dutch TNC Unilever is hardly a household word. Yet the company's 400 brands make it the third largest global food company, (behind Nestlé and Kraft), the global market leader in detergents, and number three in soap and personal care products. Look for Unilever by name on supermarket shelves and you'll come up empty. Consumers everywhere, however, recognize Hellmann's and Wish-Bone mayonnaise and salad dressings, Becel, Flora, Blue Band, Rama, Country Crock, Doriana margerines and spreads, Heartbrand, Cornetto, Carte D'or and Magnum ice creams, Knorr soups, sauces, seasonings and dressings, Slim-Fast diet products, Lipton and Brooke Bond teas, and detergent, soap and personal care brand names like Cif, Comfort, Dove, Lifebuoy, Lux, Omo, Persil, Ponds, Rexona, Signal, Sunsilk and Vaseline. All of this is Unilever.

Many of these products contain palm oil or palm oil derived chemical products. Unilever is heavily into palm oil - so much so that its "Sustainable Agriculture Manager", Jan Kees Vis, is the Executive President of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a "multistakeholder" operation involving palm oil producers, users, retailers and NGOs like Oxfam and WWF which is busily putting a green face on a highly destructive industry.

Unions and workers at Unilever Europe, through the Unilever European Works Council, are now calling on Unilever to distance itself from a particularly notorious producer, PT Musim Mas of Indonesia. Unilever knows about Musim Mas, because the IUF and other trade union organizations have called on the RSPO to take action against the company, which is a member of the RSPO Executive Board. To stop company workers from exercising their trade union rights, Musim Mas last year fired at a stroke 700 union members, refused to renew the contracts of an additional 300 union members employed as day labourers, expelled 700 workers and their families from their plantation housing and choreographed the arrest and sentencing of 6 trade union officers at the company's plantation and palm oil refinery in Pelalawan, Sumatra. Jan Kees Vis and the RSPO claim it's not their business. (For more information click here).

In a letter sent on behalf of 52,000 workers represented on the Unilever European Works Council to Unilever CEO Patrick Cescau on March 15, works council president Günter Baltes writes "to express our concerns as Unilever employees, as consumers, and as citizens of Europe. Unilever may be manufacturing a broad range of products for consumption in Europe and export abroad which include as ingredients palm oil products from Musim Mas. The use of these ingredients, tainted as they are by violent rights abuses, is unacceptable." The letter calls on the company to convey these concerns to Musim Mas, and concludes: "If it is Unilever's position that the company does not use Musim Mas products in any way, it is incumbent upon Unilever to publicly clarify its palm oil sourcing and open the process to independent scrutiny. Unilever employees, consumers, and all those concerned with human rights and responsible business practices can accept no less."

To read the full text of the letter to Unilever (in pdf format) click here.