Unilever Pakistan management has stepped up its aggression against the workers at its Lipton/Brooke Bond tea factory in Khanewal, Pakistan. The plant – Unilever’s last directly-owned and operated tea plant in a nation of tea drinkers – employs some 750 workers to pack tea, but only 22 are employed directly by Unilever.

The remaining 723 are employed by 6 labour hire agencies on a ‘no work, no pay’ basis. They get no pension, no benefits, receive one-third the pay of the permanent workers and cannot join the union which negotiates pay and conditions with Unilever. They’ve formed an organization to regularize their employment status – Unilever Mazdoor Union Khanewal. With the support by the IUF-affiliated National Federation of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Workers of Pakistan, some two hundred workers have petitioned the Labour Court to change their employment status from disposable to permanent.

In response to the workers’ fight for justice, agency workers have been beaten by labour contractors, locked in the factory without food or water and threatened with loss of work, . Now the pPlant management has created a small rival group of workers – mainly relatives of the agency contractors – who have evoked violence in the evident hope of creating an ‘incident’ which would justify further retribution against the workers, their organization and the legal process.

Now Unilever management is stoking tension by punishing workers who have filed petitions for permanent employment, sending them home without work, and secretly filing criminal charges with the police.

On March 1, the contractor Riaz Ahmed and Brothers secretly filed a police complaint against 17 workers – all of whom had filed petitions with the Labour Court – accusing them of fomenting unrest, interfering with management etc. The charges actually stem from a demonstration outside the factory one week earlier by workers protesting the ‘no work – no pay’ policy’. A member of the Provincial Assembly visited the plant on that day to hear the workers’ grievances:

The witnesses to this complaint are the senior security guards, the contractor and the relatives of the contractor employed in the factory.

The contractor, Riaz Ahmed and Brothers, supplies workers exclusively to Unilever Khanewal. Their office is located inside the Unilever Khanewal factory premises. This, and the fact that the police complaint against these workers charges them with allegedly threatening and detaining Unilever Khanewal management, suggests that the complaint was filed with the full knowledge of the Unilever Khanewal management.

The workers, when they learned of the criminal charges, successfully applied for bail, which means they are at liberty pending a future court hearing. But the situation has become still more tense since workers learned on March 6 that Unilever Khanewal management and Riaz Ahmed and Brothers may seek to have their bail annulled, which would mean arrest and detention pending a criminal trial.

It is a well-rehearsed tactic at Unilever Pakistan. At the company’s plant in Rahim Yar Khan , for example, where casual workers began to challenge their precarious job status in 2007, management deliberately fabricated an incident in order to press charges against union officers, militarize the plant and force hundreds of temporary workers to sign redundancy letters at the point of a gun. Unilever Pakistan has recently begun the planned elimination of half the remaining permanent positions at the factory.

In response to the many thousands of messages sent to Unilever corporate management in response to the IUF solidarity campaign, Unilever has claimed that it is ‘seeking to involve all stakeholders to discuss and resolve this issue’. In fact, they’re seeking to crush the workers through provocation. On March 2, the IUF wrote Unilever CEO Paul Polman that it would hold the company personally responsible for any provocations or incidents at the plant.

Until last year, Unilever had two tea factories in Pakistan. The Karachi factory employed 122 permanent workers and 450 casuals. Apparently that was too many permanent workers for Unilever, so the plant was closed and production transferred to a former warehouse where tea is now packed with 100% outsourced, temporary staff. There are now 22 permanent workers left on Unilever’s tea production payroll.

In third quarter 2008, Unilever Pakistan reported an increase in net profits of close to 70% for the comparable period in 2007 – and paid out a special interim cash dividend to celebrate the feat.

Destroying permanent jobs – could it make the world’s most profitable beverage?

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