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Mass layoffs and intolerance
against unions


Netherlands, India and Pakistan: Three fronts against Unilever’s policy of layoffs. An update of these three cases.



Both in The Netherlands and in India and Pakistan workers are suffering under the onslaught of Unilever’s rationalization, modernization and profitability increase policies. In the framework of the Unilever 2010 program, management plans to lay off approximately 11 percent of the 179,000 workers it currently employs.




The company announced that it would close three of its six factories and fire 474 workers in the cities of Delft (Calve brand sauces and peanut butter), Loosdrecht (Knorr and Conimex products) and Vlaardingen (Cif cleaning products). Of the 4,300 people that work in Unilever, 3,000 perform administrative or research and development tasks and the remaining 1,300 participate directly in production.


Immediately after the company disclosed its plans, and upon management’s refusal to hear certain basic demands made by the union –in particular, the request that the company assure that workers would be protected against mandatory layoffs under the corporate restructure-, the FNV Bondgenoten and CNV Bedrijvenbond unions launched a series of mobilizations and work stoppages. After three days of stoppage, from October 10 through 12, additional union actions included rotating stoppages in all six plants, starting on October 15, and a demonstration that gathered some 1,000 people in front of Unilever’s main offices in Rotterdam. Even with five of its six Dutch plants paralyzed, management is still refusing to negotiate.


The Dutch labor unions announced their intention to oppose any attempt by the company to import products that are increasingly scarce in the domestic market (in particular, sauces and margarines) from other European locations. The unions also warn that Unilever is considering recruiting personnel from other European countries to handle the production from The Netherlands.




Since Hindustan Lever Ltd. decided to sell its Sewri, Mumbai plant to an unknown company, Bon Ltd., in July 2005, the Hindustan Lever Employees Union (HLEU), member of the All India Council of Unilever Unions (AICUU), an IUF affiliate, has repeatedly denounced the fraudulent sale of the factory, even initiating legal actions. The buyer shut down the factory two months after closing the sale, putting 900 workers out of a job. Unilever intends to concentrate its production in the states that offer the greatest tax incentives, while at the same time attempting to weaken the union’s collective bargaining power.

In the framework of the “Unilever 2010” program, management plans to lay off approximately 11 percent of the 179,000 workers it currently employs


As part of the struggle against the factory shut down, the AICUU sent groups of representatives to ten of the company’s most modern and recent factories, especially those located in Eastern and Northern India. Flyers in eight languages were handed out and rallies were held at the gates of the factories to inform more than 3,200 workers about the situation in Sewri. At every factory, management reacted violently, warning their workers against any contact with “the men from Mumbai,” in some cases, with hired bullies and the Police physically attacking workers, in one factory going as far as chasing AICUU representatives for several kilometers.


For many years, and until February 2007, Hindustan Lever was the most profitable and successful subsidiary of the Unilever group, with sales totaling 3 billion US dollars in 2006. As the Indian market opened up, and with growing competition from local and international operators, such as Procter & Gamble, Nivea, L’Oreal and AC Nielsen, the company focused on implementing Unilever’s global strategy, substituting a wide range of products firmly established in the domestic market and a small number of global products. The costs of adapting and restructuring are high and they are borne primarily by the workers. At present, Hindustan Unilever has over 40 factories and employs more than 15,000 people. The company’s aggressive global strategy has apparently spurred renewed growth in this Indian industry flagship: At the end of the second quarter of 2007, sales had gone up 13 percent as compared to the same period of the previous year, while profits had increased 29.6 percent.




The conflict’s epicenter is the Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab factory, where nearly 300 casual and contract workers were fired on October 20 after demanding that their right to permanent employment be observed. The layoffs affected another 23 workers whose permanent employment request was pending resolution in a labor court. Contracted workers earn less than 67 US dollars a month and have no labor protection or welfare benefits. Day laborers are in an even worse situation, as their pay is less than 1.50 US dollars a day. They have no insurance or assurance that they will have work from one day to the next.


The protest actions by the Unilever Rahim Yar Khan Union are supported by the Unilever Employees Federation of Pakistan, an IUF affiliate. The labor movement’s solidarity was clearly manifested at a meeting held last October 25, where union representatives from four factories and the main office in Karachi participated. At the meeting, the workers adopted a resolution demanding an end to management intimidation and the use of police forces, as well as the withdrawal of the false accusations fabricated against union representatives and the reinstatement of all laid off workers. Moreover, emphasis was made during the meeting that all jobs must be made permanent, that direct bargaining between management and the union must be established and that security personnel must refrain from doing anything other than normal security tasks.


At another solidarity meeting, held on October 26 in Rahim Yar Khan, 14 unions, professional associations and NGOs pledged their support to the struggle of the Unilever Employees Federation.

From Montevideo, Dieter Schonebohm
© Rel-UITA
November 7, 2007



With information from Hindustan Unilever, Business Week and own sources

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