Nestlé’s money grabbing demand on Ethiopia has refocused attention on the activities of this Swiss based multinational, the largest food processing company in the world. Nestlé is at the centre of another scandal.
On 22 November the DAS security police ordered Nestlé Colombia to decomission 200 tons of imported powdered milk. The milk had come from Uruguay under the brand name Conaprole, but the sacks had been repackaged with labels stating they had come from Nestlé’s Bugalagrande factory, and stamped with false production dates of 20th September and 6th October 2002. The real production dates were between August 2001 and February 2002. The discovery of another 120 tons on 6th December with similarly false country of origin and production dates, points to systematic fraud. Yet Nestlé responded indignantly, apparently it has been the victim of a set up, and in any case powdered milk has for industrial purposes an eighteen month lifespan. This bluster begs the obvious question, why relabel at all?
The discoveries caused a stir, with senators insisting the Attorney General conduct a full inquiry leading to prosecutions. The quality of Colombian justice, especially its partiality towards multinationals, is such that this must be in question. Nonetheless Nestlé has been sharply condemned. Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo charged it with using sub-standard, contaminated milk, "a serious attack on the health of our people, especially the children". The latest outcry amplifies persistent complaints from the trade unions that Nestlé does not respect human rights. Since the ‘dirty war’ erupted in the early 1980s, Colombian trade unionists have been on the front line of targeted, but unofficial, repression. The Food and Drink Workers Union SINALTRAINAL was formed in 1982. Eight of its members working at Nestlé have been assassinated.
The principal perpetrators are the paramilitary death squads. Their links with official entities are an open secret. For example, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) arrived in the Cauca valley in 1999. Human Rights Watch reports that it was the Colombian army who set up this new AUC front (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001), which declared local union leaders as military targets. Within six months six trade unionists had been assassinated, including SINALTRAINAL member Omar Dario Rodriguez Zuleta in Bugalagrande on 21 May 2002.
There is no evidence connecting Nestlé with this. However the logic of the violations, to eliminate trade unionists and other social movement activists, corresponds with the company’s own aggressive policy to liquidate the union. In late 2001 management at another Nestlé subsidiary ‘Comestibles La Rosa’ threatened workers that they must either renounce union membership or lose their jobs. In February 2002 the union formally presented demands to Cicolac, Nestlés milk processing subsidiary. Management tried to break the collective agreement covering 400 workers, sack 96 workers and break the contracts of another 58 workers so that there jobs could be contracted out through labour agencies. Sub-contracting and cheaper inputs are two aspects of the same drive to cut costs.
This brings us back to the cheap powdered milk imports. According to SINALTRAINAL, Nestlé-Cicolac’s new policy ‘has generated misery for small and medium dairy farmers and for peasants’. One area known as ‘Little Switzerland’, where livelihoods depend 90% on milk output, has been devastated.
SINALTRAINAL is a very good example of how workers in the ‘Third World’ have taken the initiative in resisting the multinationals. As they say:
"Nestlé converts the factories into camps for the public security forces in order to create terror in the community, destroy the unity of the workers, and misinform the members of the union, with the goal of putting them against the leaders and destroying the movement … This reality urgently demands the globalization of solidarity against the globalization of misery, oppression, and death of the communities."
These developments present a challenge to the movement in Britain, where labour relations with Nestlé have been relatively benign. Nestlé even had a stand at last year’s TUC annual conference, jointly staffed by corporate executives and union representatives. It is time for a more robust and independent approach, based on relationships with unions like SINALTRAINAL in Colombia, and elsewhere to make common cause against a rapacious multinational.