European companies, including the UK retail giant Tesco, are facing criticism from a leading human rights organisation for allegedly exploiting weak labour laws in the US and bullying employees to prevent them from joining unions.
Human Rights Watch says European multinationals talk nicely about labour relations at home, but pay scant regard to them overseas. In a report published this morning, the New York-based campaign group says that managers at Tesco's new mini-market chain in the US, Fresh & Easy, have created an anti-union atmosphere, and that employees who want to organise union activities live in fear for their jobs. Another UK company, the security firm Group 4 Securicor (G4S), fired an employee for trying to persuade colleagues to join a union.
The pair are on a list of European companies singled out by Human Rights Watch for what the group says is hypocrisy and violation of international standards on freedom of association. T-Mobile and DHL of Germany and the French industrial giant Saint-Gobain are among the other multi-nationals criticised.
"Even self-proclaimed 'progressive' companies take full advantage of weak US laws to stifle freedom of association," said Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights programme at Human Rights Watch. "The behaviour of these companies casts serious doubt on the value of voluntary commitments to human rights. Companies need to be held accountable to their own stated commitments and to strong legal standards."
European companies routinely trumpet their commitment to good labour relations in corporate and social responsibility reports designed to present a caring face to investors and the wider world. In its annual publication, for example, Tesco says: "Employees have the right to freedom of association. We recognise the right of our staff to join a recognised trade union where this is allowed within national law."
And yet when it was recruiting an employee relations director for Fresh & Easy before launching the chain in 2007, the job advert listed "maintaining non-union status and union avoidance activities" among the responsibilities. The company said the advertisement was a mistake by its recruitment agency, for which it has apologised.
Tesco employees told Human Rights Watch that managers clearly took an anti-union stance. "It was constantly driven home to us in team-lead meetings that we should tell employees they have no need for the union, that the company will take care of them so they don't need a union," said Shastina Furman, who worked for the company in San Diego. "When the union started passing out flyers outside our store, my manager told us 'You don't want to be part of it. These are not the right people for you.'"
Sometimes, the managerial messages allegedly came with menaces. A human resources manager from Tesco's headquarters came to San Diego and asked Shannon Hardin, a $10-an-hour customer assistant, why she supported the union. "This made me worried too, like they were targeting me. I thought this was my right and management shouldn't be getting into my personal thoughts."
Tesco said it aimed to have good relations with unions, but found that local unions in the US were "trying to damage our business from day one". It denied having an anti-union policy.
Human Rights Watch is campaigning to tighten labour laws in the US, which it says make it too easy for employers to flout human rights conventions and prevent unionisation and collective bargaining. Today's report is based on interviews with workers, employees' legal testimonies, findings of US arbitration panels, company documents, and written exchanges with company management.
The group claimed that T-Mobile had characterised employees' "talking about rights" as dangerous activity to be reported immediately to management and that DHL managers threatened and discriminated against workers who engaged in union activity.
It reported the case of Richard Dieterle, a security guard for 30 years, who was fired by G4S from his job patrolling a mortgage bank in Minneapolis after he recruited colleagues to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and went with union representatives to ask for a collective bargaining agreement.
In a tribunal settlement, the company agreed to pay him $7,000 (£4,530) in lost wages. G4S told Human Rights Watch: "We take pride in being the first UK-based multinational company to enter into a global agreement safeguarding employee rights throughout our operations." It added: "G4S has recognised SEIU as the bargaining representative for employees working in Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle. We are rolling out the agreement in New York, the District of Columbia and [cities across] California."
Tesco said: "Wherever we operate, all staff are free to join trade unions and we have positive relations with trade unions around the world... This report is a further example of misleading allegations being used to misrepresent our position."
"They called the Pennsylvania state troopers on us. The troopers told us we were right, that we could do what we were doing. But just having them show up put more fright into people, that somehow the union meant trouble with the law. It was very intimidating for a lot of people."
Tammy Todora, a T-Mobile employee describing how the company reacted when she and other staff distributed pro-trade union flyers to co-workers leaving the premises in Allentown, Pennsylvania
"[The supervisor] walked up to me around 9.30pm and told me he had to do my evaluation. He asked me to look him in the eyes and said, 'I f*cking hate to do this. Did you hear me? I f*cking hate to do this, but I have to.' Then he showed me the letter. I told him he knew I did my job much better than was written up. He said to me: 'Elias, I just told you this is what I have to do, and I f*cking hate it... Please sign it and let me go.'... I signed it."
Elias Sleiman, DHL worker who had his hours cut and was given a negative assessment after he handed out union leaflets
"We had lots of issues. The time sheets were confusing. They had us working through breaks and lunch. People lost a lot of money. I would bring up people's pay problems and management would tell me to tell them: 'If you don't like it, there's the door.' People came to me with complaints and I told them: 'My job's on the line, too.' The managers were always preaching 'no union' to us. Anything union was unmentionable because it could cost you your job."
Claims of Fred Baquet, team leader sacked from Fresh & Easy store in San Diego
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