Tea Factory Workers Step Up The Fight For Permanent Jobs

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Supported by the IUF-affiliated National Federation of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Workers of Pakistan, over 700 contract agency workers at Unilever’s last directly-owned and operated Lipton tea factory in Pakistan are stepping up their campaign for permanent job status.

The workers will be launching a series of national and local actions, and urgently need your support.

While Unilever worldwide is funding its hugely expensive share buyback and super dividend program through massive subcontracting and selloffs, the Pakistan management has set new standards for exploiting precarious employment through disposable jobs.

Unilever Pakistan’s tea factory in Khanewal, Punjab province, produces two of the biggest packaged tea brands in the country, Brook Bond and Lipton.

Until August 31 of last year, Unilever had a second Lipton factory, in Karachi. That plant employed 122 permanent workers, and 450 casuals.

But that was too many permanent workers for Unilever, so the plant was abruptly closed and production transferred to a former warehouse nearby – with 100% outsourced, temporary staff.

Unilever’s Khanewal factory employs 22 permanent workers, union members who are covered by a collective agreement.

But another 723 workers are hired through six contract labour agencies.

The small number of permanent workers receive a monthly base wage of 18,000 Pakistan rupees – some US$226.

The basic wage for those providing disposable, ‘temporary’ work is 6,000 Pakistan rupees if they’re lucky enough to work a minimum 26 days.

Otherwise the daily wage is 232 Pakistan rupees – less than three dollars a day.

Where permanent workers receive double for overtime/holiday work, agency workers simply receive the basic hourly wage.

Disposable workers have no annual or medical leave.

From one week to the next, they do not know their assignments or work schedules – or whether they will have work.

The majority of these workers have worked for more than ten years at the Khanewal factory, with an average of 15 years and some as long as 30 years.

But since they’re not formally employed by Unilever, they are barred from joining a union of Unilever workers and bargaining with Unilever as their employer.

All of these workers should by law have been granted permanent jobs as soon as they completed 9 months of continuous employment.

More than a decade later – and in some cases three decades later – they are still contract agency workers.

These workers should not only have permanent employment status in accordance with the law, but they should be directly employed by Unilever.

The labour hire agencies supply labour exclusively to the Unilever Khanewal factory.

The agencies hold bogus addresses in the nearby town but in reality operate their offices inside the Unilever factory itself.

Two Lipton workers dismissed in August after 30 years of working at Unilever’s Khanewal tea factory at minimum wage received no social security, medical benefits or pension.

Workers like these built the profits which allowed CEO Niall Fitzgerald to retire from Unilever in 2004 with a £17 million golden handshake.

Determined to build a more secure future, and to avoid the victimization which was the fate of workers involved in earlier struggles challenging precarious employment at the factory, the contract agency workers formed the Unilever Mazdoor Union Khanewal.

Supported by the IUF-affiliated National Federation of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Workers of Pakistan, the union is assisting contract agency workers to file petitions in the Labour Court to secure their right to permanent employment.

The union has organized rallies and demonstrations and publicised their struggle, but so far without success – the contract workers have not been made permanent, and Unilever has reacted viciously to similar efforts to end the company’s disposal employment regime at other production sites.

At the company’s consumer product factory in Rahim Yar Khan, for example, where Unilever’s employment practices are yet again the subject of a formal IUF submission to the OECD, Unilever fired close to 300 workers who announced their intention to struggle for permanent employment status.

International support is urgently needed as the Khanewal union gears up for a new round of public action to press their case.

The Lipton workers are fighting for the right of workers everywhere to decent work – secure employment, a living wage, health and retirement benefits, and the right to join a trade union with a collective bargaining relationship to their real employer.

l ‘Be the best you can be’: Unilever’s Lipton tea factory in Karachi has no name, no logo … and no permanent employees, says the IUF, the international food, farm and hotel workers trade union confederation.

In stark contrast to efforts to bring global attention to the Lipton brand name, alleges the IUF, the factory in Karachi, Pakistan, that produces Lipton tea is nameless.

There is no nameplate at the factory gate. No billboards or logos.

There’s nothing to indicate any connection to Unilever, or its Lipton brand.

That’s probably the point. Unilever Pakistan can claim it has no connection to the 400 to 600 workers employed at the factory making Lipton and Brooke Bond branded tea.

Even the nameless factory is not their employer.

All of the workers are hired through labour contract agencies.

Not a single worker has a direct, permanent employment contract.

Although the nameless factory is known in the area as the ‘Daud Pracha Godown’ (basically a warehouse), it is in fact a major manufacturing operation, the IUF further alleges.

It claims that after the closure of the Unilever Lipton factory in Karachi in August 2008, the nameless factory is now the major source of Lipton and Brooke Bond tea manufactured in Pakistan.

When the Unilever Lipton factory in Karachi closed last year, eliminating 122 permanent jobs, machinery was moved to the nameless factory to increase its production of Lipton and Brooke Bond tea.

And it seems it was not just the machinery that was moved.

The Unilever Pakistan works manager also moved from the Lipton factory to the nameless factory, alleges the union confederation.

It says: ‘According to local sources the former Unilever Pakistan Works Manager is now in charge of a company called “Trust Professional” which is contracted by Unilever Pakistan to produce Lipton tea.

‘ “Trust Professional” does not appear on the nameless factor, nonetheless, the connection with Unilever Pakistan is absolutely clear.

‘In a fresh assault on the hundreds of workers fighting for the right to permanent employment at the Lipton factory in Khanewal, Unilever Pakistan management is using the nameless factory to create even greater fear and insecurity.

‘Earlier this week trucks began transferring Lipton and Brooke Bond packaging material from the Unilever-owned Khanewal factory to the nameless factory in Karachi.

‘Machinery that has been idle for four years is being cleaned and, according to the management staff involved, will be used “elsewhere to start production”.

‘So instead of fulfilling its obligations under national laws and international Conventions and guidelines, Unilever Pakistan is resorting to the nameless factory as the ultimate escape from any employer responsibility, while promoting an even more extreme regime of disposable jobs.

‘This, however, is a move that risks permanent damage to the Lipton brand name globally, and no amount of advertising will repair it.’