Management pressure on workers and their unions continues at Nestlé, the world’s largest food company
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Management at the Nescafé factory in Panjang has fired 53 of the 87 members of our affiliate SBNIP (technically they were handed “resignation letters”!) after the union took industrial action in support of their collective bargaining demands. The strike was the predictable result of five years of deep frustration.
On March 31 this year, SBNIP and local Nestlé management signed an agreement (initialed by the IUF and Nestlé corporate management on March 28) which finally opened the way for the union to bargain the Panjang workers’ collective agreement, including the wage bargaining which Nestlé management had been steadfastly rejecting for years.
Negotiations were difficult, and eventually deadlocked when the union called into question the enormously unequal spread in proposed wages within the many individual job categories, a spread which in the union’s view failed to comply with government regulations. With negotiations at an impasse, the union filed notification to strike in accordance with the legal requirements, and the SBNIP members – representing the majority of unionized workers at the factory – ceased to work on September 21, and peacefully occupied the plant to ensure that no product would be leaving the factory.
The company responded by denouncing the strike as illegal and ordering people back to work. During the strike workers received phone calls and two letters – letters from the company that Nestlé now claims were legal summons.
As tensions escalated, workers left the factory premises on September 26, briefly occupied the football field (inside the factory grounds), and then left the factory as a sign of good faith for the negotiations scheduled for the following day.
The next day, however, with the union announcing a return to work pending the outcome of the negotiation, Nestlé management failed to turn up for the scheduled meeting.
Following this provocative rebuff, the strike resumed on September 28, and the union filed for an eventual extension of industrial action should it be necessary.
The strike attracted sufficient attention in the media that a delegation from the provincial parliament came to Panjang on October 3 and asked to meet with the union members inside the factory. Nestlé management rejected this request.
On the morning of October 5, the local Labour Department called SBNIP and Nestlé management to mediation but management sent only junior company representatives who were not authorized to take any decisions in the mediation process. The union had looked to the mediation as an opportunity to make the case that it could not sign an agreement whose provisions were incompatible with government recommendations, and therefore potentially illegal. In this mediation the union agreed to end the strike at 1PM the same day and a memorandum prepared and witnessed by the Labour Department was signed by the union president, Eko Sumaryono and the Nestlé management representative. Significantly the reference in this document to the strike of September 21-October 5 does not make any reference to the strike being “illegal”.
The strike ended at 1PM in accordance with the agreement and in two telephone calls between the union and Nestlé management at 6:27PM and 7:52PM, it was agreed to meet the next morning, October 6, to discuss finally signing the collective agreement. But from 10PM on October 5 Nestlé management launched the mass dismissal of union members.
When the strike ended as agreed on October 5, union members on the second shift reported for duty at 2PM and, although management did no re-start the machines, they completed their shift. But when union members arrived for the third shift at 10PM they were faced by a cordon of security guards at the factory gates, with riot police on standby inside the factory grounds. Security guards called out the names of union members, handed them “resignation” letters one by one and then sent them away. The same letters were also sent to their homes. Dozens of termination letters were issued on October 6.
This ruthless reaction by Nestlé came after the conflict was resolved under the auspices of the Labour Department and the strike was already over in accordance with the official memorandum that the company and union signed. More incredibly, even after the union agreed to sign the collective agreement, Nestlé management still continued its mass termination. This extreme bad faith on the part of the company reveals the company’s determination to crush the union regardless of the conflict being resolved. This was not about the strike – it was the culmination of five years of attempts by Nestlé Panjang management to destroy a union that dared exercise its collective bargaining rights (see What Nestlé will not want you to know: the truth about the Panjang strike).
To demonstrate their refusal to accept this mass forced “resignation” and to express their determination to be reinstated, the unfairly dismissed union members collected the severance pay that was automatically transferred to their bank accounts on October 5 and attempted to return it to the company. On October 7, when union and management representatives were called to a meeting by the local parliamentary commission, union representatives handed over the severance money. Nestlé management – left speechless by this – refused to take it and left.
Union delegates at the IUF-A/P Regional Conference (Bali, Indonesia October 18-20, 2011) carried an emergency resolution on trade union rights violations at Nestle Panjang (Indonesia) and Nestle Kabirwala (Pakistan). Picture shows delegates protesting against Nespressure inflicting mass dismissals at Panjang and false criminal charges against union leader in Pakistan.
The Panjang strike was an understandable response to years of struggle for the right to form an independent union and engage in meaningful collective bargaining with one of the most powerful corporations in the world. The company’s local management has deliberately stoked accumulated frustration, engineering a series of events which it is attempting to exploit in order to undermine years of struggle in a country where workers are still denied their fundamental rights.
Nespressure stalks Pakistan
No sooner had Nestlé expanded its plant in Kabirwala, Pakistan in 2007 to become the company’s largest milk reception factory in the world, than management set about trying to undermine the union and attacking its energetic and effective president, Mohammad Hussein Bhatti, who was suspended in June 2007 for resisting management interference in union elections (see Pakistan: Management interferes in union elections, dismisses elected union president and violates court orders). Nestlé was forced to back down and Bhatti was reinstated.
But pressure on the union continued and has again come to a head, stimulated by the union’s decision to open its membership to the numerous contract workers at the plant and to assist 250 contract workers to become permanent employees – in accordance with the law – by filing legal cases at the Labour Court. Bhatti and the IUF-affiliated National Federation of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Workers gave important support to the Casual-T struggle at the Unilever Lipton tea factory in nearby Khanewal – and it would appear that Nestlé’s local management has determined to resist similar demands for an end to abuses of precarious employment arrangements.
While the court has issued ‘stay orders’ enjoining management from changing the contract workers’ status until the cases are decided, management has terminated many workers’ contracts and organized a calculated provocation by inviting new contract workers for a factory ‘visit’ – creating the impression that they will replace those fighting for permanent positions after years of precarious employment.
Rather than meeting the union’s demand to negotiate the employment status of precarious workers at this ‘world class’ facility, management has tried to mobilize local opinion against the union and its president and fomented a series of incidents and provocations involving false criminal charges (subsequently thrown out by the court) and inciting extremist religious organizations to attack the union. On October 10, union president Bhatti was stopped by security at the factory entrance and informed that he was suspended for four days, then repeatedly suspended for four-day periods since.
Tell Nestlé management in Vevey that local Panjang management must unconditionally reinstate the fired SBNIP members and enter into good faith negotiations which have been delayed too long! Pakistan management must rescind the suspension of union president Bhatti, stop provoking, intimidating and dismissing union members and officers and enter into good faith negotiations with the Kabirwala union.
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