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Social dialogue and trade union networking at Unilever

14 March, 2013The consumer products multinational corporation Unilever’s huge profits continue to grow but so does the company’s pressure on its employees’ trade unions around the world. IndustriALL participated in sessions of international social dialogue and trade union networking on 4-7 March, building on the trade union response to this trend.

IndustriALL Global Union and the International Union of Food Workers IUF met Unilever senior head office management on 4-5 March. That discussion was mainly about precarious workers and union rights. Occupational health and safety was also discussed. Within the Unilever family, some plants operate with zero contract and agency labour, and others are almost entirely staffed in that manner.

Union recognition issues were discussed, with indications that Unilever was willing to investigate and address some of them. Employment of women was also discussed. A working group on this, and on occupational health and safety, was proposed for further discussion at future meetings.

Recent events and meetings, including the Unilever meeting referred to above, confirm that supply chains issues are not just a Unilever problem. Indeed, it is clear that loss of control by multinational companies of their incredibly (and unnecessarily) complex networks of suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, and so on has reached a critical point. It is questionable whether corporate head offices really have the capacity to find out what is going on in their supply chains – even within those companies that care to know.

The Unilever Union Networking Meeting in Eastbourne followed the meeting at Unilever House, and confirmed that the increasing use of precarious work arrangements continues within Unilever. This is a company that needs strong unions and a strong global union network, whether it is to respond to union busting in Colombia, plant closure in Brazil, contracting out of work in Indonesia, or outsourcing to Sodexo in the Netherlands.

The most important outcome of the networking meeting was the closing Declaration (follows):

Representatives from Unilever unions around the world, meeting in Eastbourne, UK on 6-7 March 2013 have confirmed the alarming increase of pressure on our workplaces and on our trade union organizations. While Unilever grows its sales, profits, and returns to shareholders, we experience continuous restructuring, continuous pressure on jobs, pay and benefits, continuous insecurity, continuous outsourcing and continuous pressure on trade union rights. Workers and their communities have been brutally left out of the company's “sustainable living” plan.

We insist on sustainable workplaces, sustainable employment and guarantees of rights for current and future Unilever workers. We have therefore agreed to strengthen our solidarity and mutual support, and have agreed on a series of practical measures to build that solidarity through international trade union organization so that workers may share in the benefits of the company’s growth, rather than paying for it with the loss of our jobs, our health and our rights. And we have today pledged to begin this work now.