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Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide


Unions Mobilize Internationally Against Global Job Destruction at Unilever

Posted to the IUF website 30-Nov-2007

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Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch TNC 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 mayonnaise, Becel, Flora, Blue Band and Rama, spreads and margarine, Ben & Jerry's, Heartbrand, Cornetto, Carte D'or and Magnum ice creams, Knorr soups, 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.

Under pressure from shareholders and ratings agencies, Unilever has over the last 7 years closed or sold off over 125 factories around the world, halving the global workforce to 179,000. Over these years, profits have steadily risen.

Systematic outsourcing has led to the elimination of permanent jobs at Unilever in many parts of the world and the creation of vast complexes of precarious labour. Outsourcing is now set to increase from 15 to 25% of volume. Many workers who produce for Unilever have been employed on renewable, "temporary" contracts for over a decade!

By looting its own resources, Unilever management has been paying itself bonuses and buying back its own shares with cash made available through job cuts and outsourcing. Cash freed up through restructuring will be used to finance €25-30 billion in dividends and share buybacks. The money will not be invested in the long-term future of the company.

Since the shock announcement in August of Unilever's intention to cut 20,000 jobs world-wide and the subsequent disclosure that half of these proposed job cuts would be implemented in Europe, the IUF and European trade unions have been mobilising in preparation for a Day of Action on Tuesday, 4 December. On that day, over 500 Unilever trade unionists are expected to gather in Rotterdam for a mass meeting, press conference and demonstration. The event will be accompanied by national protests throughout Europe.

At this time, unions are fighting restructuring plans and layoffs in a number of European countries. In the UK Unilever announced in September that 315 jobs would be lost as the result of restructuring at the production sites in Port Sunlight, Warrington and Burton. "Factory reviews" are currently underway at Purfleet, Leeds and Crumlin.

In Italy, Unilever's restructuring plans include the disposal, at the end of this year, of the ice cream factory in Cagliari (Sardinia) and the retrenchment of 200 workers and proposed redundancy for 100 workers at the Findus plant in Cisterna di Latina.

Following the announcement of the closure of the Delft, Loosdrecht and Vlaardingen factories in the Netherlands, a three-week-long strike in October brought Unilever to the bargaining table, finally ready to agree to fair redundancy terms and an employment guarantee for workers not (yet) affected by restructuring plans. The company also finally agreed to examine alternative plans proposed by the unions.

The European protest at Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam on December 4th will also highlight the company's multiple violations of international labour standards in other parts of the world.

In 2005, Unilever conspired to sell its Bombay factory in order to close it down, transfer production to Indian states with more congenial fiscal environments, eliminate the union and relieve it of its employer obligations. This move has left 900 workers jobless.

In the Indian state of Assam, a lockout at the Doom Dooma factory turned into union busting in September when management required workers to renounce their union membership and join a company-sponsored union as a condition for returning to work.

At the Unilever factory in Rahimyar Khan in Pakistan, there are some 350 workers employed on 9-month contracts and another 800 workers hired through labour agencies. In October, when the union announced its intention to open up membership to temporary workers, and to assist those eligible under the law to acquire permanent status, Unilever instantly fired 292 temporary workers and replaced them with agency workers, who have no legal possibility to become permanent workers.

The IUF has challenged these abuses at the OECD, whose Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises - an intergovernmental agreement which obliges multinational employers to conform to international labour and human rights standards - Unilever has brazenly violated. In these three cases, the IUF has made submissions to the National Contact Point in the United Kingdom, made up of representatives from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Detailed information on Unilever's human rights violations in these cases is available on the IUF website.

Unions around the world will be organizing a variety of actions on December 4 to highlight their common demand for an end to Unilever's systematic destruction of jobs.