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The Unilever CSR Chronicles II: Pakistan's 'Employer of Choice'

Posted to the IUF website 17-Mar-2008

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Unilever was rated “employer of choice” in a survey of MBAs from nine of Pakistan's leading business schools recently conducted by the Pakistan Society of Human Resource Management. This latest prize follows a series of other recent awards to Unilever Asia for "Excellence", "Significant Achievement" and other manifestations of social responsibility in human resources management.

How many more CSR awards would Unilever receive if the full human resources story were told, particularly in Pakistan? The Pakistan internet journal "The News" on March 8 published an interview with Unilever Pakistan Chairman Ehsan Malik. According to the article, "Pakistan’s largest consumer products company… cannot keep up with demand for some of its products. These include laundry powder and the recently launched convenience foods, the soups and Chinese meal-makers. Demand is so strong that, in the case of foods, despite doubling production capacity, Pakistanis can’t seem to have enough of them."

Under the circumstances, one would expect Unilever to be investing in manufacturing capacity and above all hiring new Unilever employees (drawn by what Malik describes as "the culture and personal development potential" the company offers).

For Unilever, however, as Malik told his interviewer, "the possibilities are endless". Particularly when it comes to creating disposable jobs. The awards fail to recognize the company's greatest achievement: successfully combining growth with a radical reduction in the number of people who work for Unilever. At Unilever Pakistan, outsourcing and casualizing the workforce have been refined to levels other companies can only dream of. Of the 8,000 people employed in Unilever Pakistan's factories and offices, only slightly over 500 are employed on permanent contracts.

But in the face of continuously rising demand even 500 permanent Unilever employees can be too many. Last October, management at the company's personal products factory in Rahim Yar Khan summarily fired all but 5 of the plant's 292 temporary workers following the union's announcement that it would open its membership ranks to temporary workers and help them achieve the permanent status owed them by law following nine months of continuous service. All the fired temporary workers were replaced by agency workers, who do not even enjoy the notional right to eventually achieve permanent status - and cannot join a union of Unilever workers.

Within 24 hours of the mass firings, a labour contracting company was established called SAAD Enterprises (SE) to supply the plant with agency workers. For the first month following the mass firings, SE provided 300-350 workers, of which nearly 100 were former temporary workers dismissed in October - now hired to do the same work through SE. After one month the 100 former temporary workers hired through SE were all "released" by the company. The reason for engaging and then "releasing" these workers was to provide employment for the dismissed temporary workers only until the 30-day deadline for legally challenging the dismissals had elapsed. As a result, these workers could not file court cases over their illegal dismissals.

SE meanwhile continues to supply hundreds of workers to Unilever recruited from the home village of SE co-owner Manzoor Waraich. SE is owned and operated by Manzoor Waraich and Rana Irfan, who is the brother-in-law of the Unilever Rahim Yar Khan factory Works Manager Shahid Rafiq.

Here we have a perfect illustration of what the March 8 interview calls "the positive factors that make Unilever continue to invest in products and people in Pakistan." Unilever's achievement is in fact much greater. To tide Unilever over the seasonal lull in CSR award giving, the IUF therefore proposes a "Special Commendation Certification for Nepotism and Union-Busting in the Service of Contract Labour Excellence"

How many awards can Unilever win before success goes to its head? Watch this space…