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Combating Hunger or Destroying Jobs? Unilever, Blue Band�, and the World Food Programme

Posted to the IUF website 02-Sep-2008

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The United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP), according to an official news release of August 27, has launched "a joint venture with the employees of industrial giant Unilever, who will donate a percentage of their pay to help combat child hunger in Pakistan." The announcement, which goes on to state that "some 600 Unilever staff" have made a financial commitment to the programme, raises some intriguing questions. Unilever's "global partnership" with the WFP, "Together for Child Vitality", was announced already in 2007. At the time, Unilever stated that " It expects its employees to play a key role in this partnership".

Apparently the employees have now been won over. Nearly all of them, in fact.

How many people actually work for Unilever Pakistan? It depends on who wants to know, and why. According to an item on the company's website in April 2007 Unilever Pakistan and Unilever Pakistan Foods �...have 5 wholly owned and 7 third party manufacturing sites across Pakistan and employ around 1,500 people on their payroll and many thousands indirectly.�

Within weeks one of these factories apparently disappeared because the very same website stated that: �The company operates through 4 regional offices, as well as 4 wholly owned and 6 third party manufacturing sites across Pakistan.�

But when responding to IUF action at the OECD charging the company with the abusive use of temporary work contracts to repress trade union organization, Unilever Pakistan Human Resources Director Mr Haroon Waheed wrote in October 2007 that the company employs directly and indirectly more than 8,000 people in 5 factories and offices throughout the country.

So let us take the figure of 8,000. The problem is this: of the 8,000 persons involved in manufacturing Unilever products in Pakistan, only 371 are directly employed by Unilever. Heavy reliance on casual, temporary and agency workers, workers whose contracts bring them no job security and inferior pay and benefits to those formally employed by Unilever, is the rule throughout the company's operations. The industrial giant, whose products and advertising are everywhere (even at the UN), has a miniaturized payroll.

At Unilever's Khanewal Tea Factory, for example, there are 22 permanent workers and 1,000 casual employees. The casuals are employed through labour hire agencies, so, legally they don't work for Unilever, and have inferior pay and benefits to those (22) who do work for Unilever, though they work alongside the 22 to produce the same branded Unilever tea. And since they don't work for Unilever, they have no right to form a union of Unilever employees and negotiate with the company in whose factories they produce the Unilever products.

At the Walls Ice Cream Factory in Lahore, for example, there are (still) 89 permanent workers - and 750 workers employed on a casual basis.

The Lipton tea factory in Karachi formerly employed 132 permanent workers and 450 casuals - until August 31 of this year, when the plant was turned into a warehouse and production of Lipton tea bags shifted to a nearby factory in full swing employing agency workers exclusively. Workers from what remained of the permanent work force were told (in "negotiations") that if they didn't accept a severance scheme, they would be terminated with no benefits and police and paramilitaries would forcibly evict them from the factory.

At the center of the WFP/Unilever "joint venture" is the promotion of "Blue Band" margarine, for which Unilever claims exceptional nutritional and even educational benefits.

Who makes Blue Band? Not Unilever, but Dalda Foods. In 2004 Unilever Pakistan sold its Dalda brand plant in Karachi to a group of former company managers, who incorporated as Dalda Foods (Pvt.) Limited. Dalda makes Blue Band under license from Unilever (who presumably collect license fees from the registered "Blue Band" trademark). One would think that if Unilever workers don't make Blue Band, Dalda workers do. Not according to Dalda.

At the Dalda Foods factory, not a single worker (there are over 600 total) is employed on a permanent contract. The workers - those who make the "Blue Band" spread for which Unilever collects the licensing fees - are all on temporary contracts, recruited through labour hire agencies. They don't work for Unilever. Apparently they don't work for Dalda either.

When 430 workers decided to form the Dalda Food Employees Union and duly registered with the authorities on May 13. Management at Dalda opposed the union's registration application and request for collective bargaining status on the grounds that its employees aren't employed by Dalda, but by the labour hire agencies. The company's response was to fire 266 of them. Despite a court order barring it from doing so, the company continued to fire union supporters.

This is why Dalda workers, current and former, have camped in front of the factory for over 3 months, and why other unions are supporting their struggle, providing daily meals and other support.

Blue Band is apparently the world's first margarine to assemble itself it, since the hands which make it belong to no recognizable bodies. Owning the trademark of the world's only self-manufacturing margarine allows Unilever to win praise from the UN and the corporate social responsibility industry while boosting sales and visibility. Not bad for an operation with zero payroll (of course the down side is that there are no Unilever employees to sign up to support the WFP programme).

According to Unilever, "Every child deserves the nutrition and hygiene he or she needs to develop to their full physical and mental potential." The children of Dalda workers seeking a trade union apparently need not apply. Blue Band not only makes itself. It allows Unilever to "combat child hunger" while denying the vast majority of those who manufacture its branded products the right to lift themselves and their families out of poverty by forming a trade union. The real combat seems to be the war on fixed employment contracts, of which Dalda is only one battle in an ongoing company campaign. The Dalda/Blue Band sleight-of-hand merely takes this process to its logical conclusion

The company's best-known brand apparently has no workers. The World Food Programme has entered into an alliance, not with Unilever, and certainly not with Unilever employees, who are being casualized out of existence, but with a registered trademark. The WFP should take a closer look at its joint venture partner and its employment practices. And perhaps ask whether the Dalda workers' children qualify for a free serving of Blue Band at school.

Meanwhile, the Dalda workers are still camped in front of the factory - a symbol of the real, not virtual, fight against poverty.