Factory workers of the Swiss multinational Nestlé, from different countries in Latin America, are articulating to prevent setbacks to their labor rights and obtain more favorable conditions in negotiations with the company. On the horizon, is the creation of a federation that brings together workers from across the continent.
Edwin Mejia Correa, the president of the National Union of Workers in the Agro-Food System (Sinaltrainal) of Colombia, believes that an international union can help prevent the violations of rights occurring in Brazil during the pandemic, from spreading to other countries.
International contacts, according to the leader, facilitate the forwarding of demands directly to Swiss organizations that assist in negotiations with Nestlé. “We met last year, in several countries, and we intend on touring the continent to expand this articulation”, points out Correa.
One of the most urgent measures, according to him, is to ensure that factories provide enough personal protective equipment for workers. In some factory units, only one mask was provided per worker per shift at the start of the pandemic. Experts recommend that masks be changed every two hours.
“In Colombia, the factories have not stopped, the pace has not slowed down with the covid-19 pandemic. On the contrary, we produced more during the pandemic, so this period had no impact our wages. But we are mobilized in order to assure adequate sanitary conditions”, concludes the Colombian union leader.
Reality in Brazil
Nestlé planned to invest R$ 763 million (about 142.3 million US$) in operations in Brazil in 2020, yet it threatens rights conquered by workers decades ago. In factories in the states of Bahia (Northeast region) and Espírito Santo (Southeast region), workers resist what they consider to be disloyalty on the company’s behalf.
"Here in Bahia, Nestlé closed a factory in the city of Itabuna, nixing more than 340 jobs due to the end of tax incentives", points out the secretary of the Union of Workers in the Food and Related Industries of Bahia (SindAlecimento), Eduardo Sodré.
He relates that workers are frightened by the measures imposed by the company. "In other plants, there are massive layoffs and the hiring of temporary and outsourced workers, whose working conditions are infinitely worse. The threats are constant, but we are willing to resist", he defends.
Sodré stated that the union will publish a strike notice, request mediation from the Labor Court and expects judicial support in relation to this issue, "positioning itself contrary to the extinction of historical clauses that were built at the cost of much struggle".
Nestlé informed Brasil de Fato that it is in the process of negotiating the 2020/21 collective agreements through virtual meetings, and “does not comment on the content of ongoing negotiations.”
For the union leader, many of the setbacks faced in the pandemic are a result of the 2017 labor reform, and the international articulation with other Nestlé workers means “a light at the end of the tunnel”. “We need to organize ourselves to fight unfair practices, or else the whip will be reintroduced to labor relations ".
He points out that the company is in more than 250 countries, and argues that workers’ unions must also extend beyond borders to guarantee their rights.
"We should be united, supportive and informed of the situation in each country. If we were organized on every continent, the conversation would be different. Better yet, if we were organized at a global level like the corporations, respect for workers would be quite different", he emphasizes.
The situation reported by Sodré in Bahia is similar to that of workers in other states, as explained by the president of the Food Workers Union of Espírito Santo (Sindialecimento-ES), Linda Morais.
“Workers are showing indignation and resisting. Nestlé is making the wrong choice by making labor more precarious in its strategic plan to become the owner of the world. This posture has been stingy and very mean to the workers”, he criticizes.
Chile and Peru
While articulation with other countries is still incipient, neighbors Chile and Peru are the ones that maintain the closest ties with Brazil. In Chile, the main problems encountered during the pandemic are setbacks in women's rights and non-compliance with health standards.
Nestlé has eleven factories in the country, two of which are in the capital Santiago. José Guzmán has worked in one of them for 34 years, located in Maipú, one of the capital Santiago’s communities, alongside another 1.8 thousand workers. At this plant, 250 workers were let go during the pandemic because they belonged to covid-19 high risk groups - the majority of them, pregnant women and the elderly.
One of the problems is the distance that workers must traverse to maintain hygiene. “Legislation states that health services cannot be more than 75 meters from the work station. In the chocolate section, where I work, they placed these facilities more than 600 meters away”, adds the union leader.
In addition to internal issues at Nestlé, Guzmán highlights changes in legislation during the pandemic that have damaged the working class as a whole. For example, a “job protection” law that allows companies to temporarily suspend contracts, forcing the worker to pay for his own salary with funds from unemployment insurance.
On the Peruvian side, the international mobilization is linked to the National Federation of Nestlé Workers (Fenatranepsa) and the National Federation of Workers in the Food, Beverage and Related Industries (Fentaap).
According to Teodoro Zapata, secretary general of Fentaap, most corporations in Peru have been failing to comply with legislation regarding occupational safety during the pandemic. Of the 2,300 Nestlé workers in the country, 12 died as a result of covid-19. In some factories, 80% were infected between March and April.
“The health and labor committee was not functioning properly. They did what the company wanted, not what the law says”, he criticizes.
Zapata says attacks on union freedoms and undue pressure, which intensified during the pandemic, have been practiced by the company for decades.
"Many do not join the union because, if they do, they will not be promoted."
The dream of an international front to face these setbacks is also old. It goes back to 1987, when the leader began to question himself: “Food is the backbone of peoples’ lives, of society. If there is no food, when there is nothing to eat, there is a big problem. So, if we have this great tool, why can't we come together?”.
Brasil de Fato contacted Nestlé's public relations departments in Colombia, Chile and Peru. The report will be updated as soon as replies are received.
Edited by: Leandro Melito