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IUF Global Meat Unions' Conference Outlines Organizing Strategies, Priorities

Posted to the IUF website 18-Aug-2008

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The IUF's 2nd Global Meat Conference took place in Eastbourne, UK from June 23-24, 2008, following up the 1st Conference held in Toronto, Canada in 2002. Sixty participants from 22 trade union organizations in 17 countries in all regions of the world took part in the conference. This 2nd meeting was hosted and largely resourced by the UK's IUF affiliate Unite. Chris Kaufman, T&G section of Unite's National Secretary for Agriculture, opened the conference.

A rapidly expanding and consolidating industry

With a growing world population and increasing average income in emerging countries, global demand, production and international trade in meat and meat products are growing steadily, notably in poultry and pork. Consolidation in the global meat industry has increased in recent years with the emergence of leading meat producers such as JBS-Swift, Smithfield Foods and Cargill that have developed a global presence both in operations and sales. Through acquisitions, mergers and joint ventures, companies that were once national or regional leaders are becoming global powerhouses. Remaining national and regional meat leaders seem likely to be taken over in the medium-term by global leaders in the protein industry, or will team up among themselves to stay competitive.

Conference identifies target corporate meat leaders

During the two days of the conference, participants learnt about the acquisition of the UK's company Moy Park by Brazilian Marfrig, the fourth largest world meat producer. Just a few days after the conference, participants' speculations of a forthcoming stronger linkage between Smithfield Foods and Campofr�o Alimentaci�n were confirmed, with Smithfield's increase of its Campofr�o's ownership share from 24 to 36 percent, while Smithfield's European joint-venture Groupe Smithfield will be combined with Campofr�o's operations. Increasing sector consolidation entails restructuring but also creates opportunities for international union work and joint strategies within the same companies. The Conference identified a number of meat corporate leaders to target through joint union work: these include JBS-Swift, Tyson, Cargill, Vion, Groupe Doux, Danish Crown, Sadia, Perdig�o, Marfrig and CP Foods. Co-operation among Smithfield Foods unions is the most developed, while some unions representing members in the same global companies made contacts in Eastbourne for the first time.

Priority issues in the meat sector

All participants at the conference highlighted the extremely dangerous and difficult nature of jobs in the meat packing industry, which systematically relies on vulnerable workforce (migrants, refugees, agency work etc.) and whose increasing production speed is causing musculoskeletal disorders such as repetitive strain injuries on a mass scale. Also, some meat employers fiercely oppose union representation. These issues highlight that the meat industry is one of the sectors where unions are most needed.

Union representatives identified organizing at a national level as the key step to represent and defend meat workers, along with moulding international union alliances and solidarity linkages within the same companies and along the value chain. Conference participants analyzed recent organizing strategies, such as Unite's and the UFCW's sector-wide approach namely in the UK and US meat industries, and went through the challenges of organizing and accessing workers rights in Brazil and Thailand.

The Conference unanimously supported the Atibaia's Charter, promoted by IUF Brazilian affiliates, notably poultry union CONTAC. Unions equally expressed solidarity and support to IUF's German affiliate NGG whose members at S�dfleisch - a division of Vion - went on strike during the conference over a breakdown in collective bargaining negotiations. (Click here) for background.)

Mandate for the IUF

Union representatives mandated the IUF secretariat to draft an action programme for the sector including company-specific plans to be implemented through an affiliate-driven approach in which groups of unions with representation in the same companies would be led by the sister organization(s) present in the companies' headquarter countries and/or with strong membership. The IUF Secretariat was equally mandated to explore effective ways to facilitate and encourage electronic communication among affiliates.