Taking on the Corporations

International trade union strategies for tackling TNCs, how we win and what next when we do?


Global union organising: taking on the TNCs

6th July, 2016 / Martin Gemzell / guest blogger

The “Taking on the Corporations” plenary session discussed national and international union campaigns targetted at transnational companies:

PEARSON EDUCATION: Angelo Gavrielatos, Education International

CARLSBERG: Sar Mora, Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF) & IUF

UNILEVER: John Storey, Unite the Union & IUF

Angelo Gavrielatos, Education International

“In the context of the many challenges that confront public education systems globally, the increasing commercialisation and privatisation in and of education represent the greatest threat to education as a public good and to equality in education access and outcomes.”

Education International

Angelo Gavrielatos talked about the Education International (EI) “Unite4Education” campaign which is responding to the commercialisation and privatisation of education at a global level. He explained that education is the latest frontier for global capital.

The global education sector has an estimated value of 4.5 – 5 trillion dollars. It is “a growing market” in Latin America, India and Africa and offers new markets to transnational corporations (TNCs). It is an attractive sector for global capital because education is a non-depletable source of revenue – children are the most sustainable resource on the planet!

What does the campaign look like?

Angelo explained that the Unite4Education campaign draws from community and social movement approaches to trade unionism and uses the language of students’ rights.

In order to build a global response built on solidarity between and across borders, Angelo said that EI had looked for common denominators in different countries, and common experiences from different affiliated unions.

The EI analysis found that one player constantly popped up: Pearson Education. Pearson is a transnational company which operates in approximately 70 countries across the world and operates under many different banners.

The Pearson business model is based on policy influence. Its strategy is to secure representation on the boards of institutions so that it is able to influence education policy decisions in a pro-business/privatisation direction.  This is a business model which is thriving in our era of “post-democracy” trade deals which afford TNCs unprecedented levels of power and influence over governments.

Angelo explained how Pearson uses publicly available data to tell governments that “you have a problem”. They manufacture a problem and then sell solutions to “solve the problems”. They seek to monetise every aspect of the education process, gradually increasing their access to the entire education “market”.

Reaching the poor?

In Global South countries, Pearson has set up chains of so-called “low–fee” for-profit schools. These operations actively undermine the provision of quality public education in poorer countries (see article: Privatisation Undermines the Right to Education in India)

Pearson claims that their products will reach the poorest of the poor through these “low-fee” schools. However, with these “low-fee” schools charging fees of up to 40% of the daily income of the poorest, this assertion is as nonsensical as it is offensive.

The business model of Pearson’s “low-fee” schools is reliant on the employment of unqualified teachers who are sometimes paid 10-15% of qualified teachers’ salaries. They deliver a highly scripted and standardised curriculum, often reading a script word-for-word from a digital tablet.

Global view

Angelo ran through a few examples of Pearson’s mercenary global practices…

In Ghana, children attending “low-fee” schools have to pay the school fee on a daily basis. If they don’t pay, they’re not allowed to attend.

In the Philippines, the influential Ayala family owns colleges where 70% of staff members are not licenced teachers. The family uses their influence over the government to waive school infrastructure requirements in order to operate their schools out of disused offices.

In Liberia, the government is now outsourcing its entire primary education programme to Bridge International Academies, a company supported by Pearson, Gates, Zuckerberg, DfID-UK, the World Bank and others.

Further information about the campaign can be found here:


Sar Mora, Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF) & IUF

Sar Mora talked about the campaign of his union – the CFSWF – against the exploitative and union-busting tactics of Carlsberg-owned beer companies in Cambodia (see timetime of events here).

Carlsberg is one of the biggest breweries globally and owns a lot of other beer brands. It is expanding aggressively in Southeast Asia. Carlsberg is the owner of a number of Cambodian beer breweries, one of them is Cambrew in which it has a fifty percent share.

Sar Mora, President of CFSWF [Image: Khalid Mahmood]
Sar Mora, President of CFSWF
[Image: Khalid Mahmood]
In Cambodia, beer promotion women are employed by breweries to serve and promote their beer brand at restaurants and other beer outlets. Beer promoters are screened for age and looks when recruited and are sometimes forced to wear revealing clothes. Promoters from different breweries compete with each other for customers at the same beer restaurants.

Sar Mora explained that the basic salary of beer promoters is generally very low. Low wages lead to promoters feeling pressured to drink themselves, when offered to be bought beer by customers, in order to increase the number of sold beer and thereby their commission. As a result, problems with health and addiction are common.

Another problem is that most promoters are illiterate and there have been many problems with the company cheating workers on pay.

At the beginning of the campaign, the standard salary of a beer promoter was 50 dollars and the rest was earned on a commission basis, dependent on the amount of beer sold. The earnings were far below a living wage so beer promoters often drank with the customers in order to earn more money and there was pressure to accept sexual harassment.

Fighting for outstanding over-time pay and a salary increase

Sar Mora explained that his union, the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation (CFSWF), has been organising beer promoters at the Cambrew brewery since 2006. The union had been filing cases against the company to the Ministry of Labour and to the Labour Arbitration Council for years. It even won some rulings in the workers’ favour. However, the company ignored these rulings. The Ministry of Labour is corrupt and courts are not independent in Cambodia, so in 2011 the workers decided to go on strike.

Sar Mora gave some further background on the situation for trade unionists and women in Cambodia. He explained that trade unionists experience a lot of intimidation in the country, and that women are also faced with patriarchal societal attitudes which tell them not to speak out and claim their rights.

Due to these circumstances, Sar Mora said that it was difficult for the union to organise a strong strike with many workers. However, the union was able to create leverage anyway. While big numbers of workers did not join the strike, it received a lot of media coverage, including coverage in the Danish press. The Danish coverage put pressure on Carlsberg in its home country, and threatened their self-styled image as champions of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

International solidarity?

A great problem faced by the CFSWF was that the union at Carlsberg Denmark did not support the campaign. However, with the English language media writing about the case, the Cambodian union and its supporters had a platform to expose the realities for beer promotion women in Cambodia and to counter Carlsberg’s claims that they “had an active CSR agenda”.

Carlsberg also fought back against the campaign by claiming that they “couldn’t do anything” because they only owned 50% of the Cambodian company, Cambrew. Another problem has been Cambrew’s continued refusal to recognise the CFSWF due to the existence of the brewery’s “yellow union” led by a manager at the company.

Cambrew - a subsidiary of Carlsberg - owns several domestic brands including Angkor Beer
Cambrew – a subsidiary of Carlsberg – owns several domestic brands including Angkor Beer

The problem of management/government controlled unions is a big one in Cambodia, and always poses an extra challenge to independent and democratic unions who are actively trying to promote the interests of their members.

Sar Mora explained that, despite difficulties, the international attention garnered by the strike resulted in the IUF – the global union federation for food and hospitality workers’ unions – was able to support the CFSWF in approaching the union at Carlsberg Denmark: 3F (Denmark’s biggest union). Through connections made by the IUF, the CFSWF also received solidarity from unions at Carlsberg-owned breweries in other parts of the world.

Sar Mora described how continued negative media attention and the involvement of IUF resulted in a joint fact-finding mission being sent to Cambodia which included representatives of the 3F union from Carlsberg Demark, LO – the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, the IUF, the ITUC and staff from Carlsberg’s CSR department.

After the mission, Danish LO and Carlsberg issued a joint statement defending the yellow union at Cambrew. They claimed that 97% of all workers were members of the yellow union. They said they wanted to see “social dialogue” which would require CFSWF having a joint platform with the yellow union.

Sar Mora explained that the problem was that the yellow union had no interest in the workers, despite the high membership percentage. The yellow union had historically never raised a single complaint with management and had never had any elections for union officers – who all are company supervisors or managers.

Again, despite this adversity, CFSWF managed to make gains for its members. As a result of the strike and the involvement of the IUF, the union was able to win five years of unpaid overtime pay that the company had previously cheated workers out of.

The union managed to force a 300% raise in salaries for beer promoters which also had a positive impact on salaries of promoters employed by other breweries.  Thanks to these successes, the CFSWF was able to recruit more members and to organise workers on the production line at Cambrew factories.

Cambrew continues union-busting

Sar Mora explained how Cambrew continued to work to undermine CFSWF union activists following the strike. Workers involved in the strikes were initially sent to restaurants where they would have bad chances for earning commission. Unionists were spread out to outlets far out but the same truck was used to pick up unionists, so they would not mix with other workers. As a result they had to wait in dark, for hours outside the closed restaurants, sometimes at great risk.

Angkor beer promotion women on strike in January 2016 [Image: CSFWF]
Angkor beer promotion women on strike in January 2016
[Image: CSFWF]
The company also tried to rescind on promises of backpay for unpaid overtime, but the union fought back with further militant action and threat of negative publicity. The IUF organised for Carlsberg workers from the entire world to meet and discuss the situation in Cambodia and to try to, finally, see solidarity from Danish Carlsberg workers.

Sar Mora concluded by stressing the great successes of the campaign. Beer promotion women continue to face a lot of stigma from society but now they are strongly organised, with strong local leaders and active members. The CFSWF is one of few where women unionists are equally represented in leadership positions, with beer promotion women taking many key positions in the federation.

However, the fight continues and beer promoters still face many challenges with Carlsberg/Cambrew. Recently 11 trade unionists were fired and the union has had to start a new campaign

The Coca-Cola campaign

Sar Mora also briefly spoke about CFSWF’s Coca-Cola campaign. There is an extensive use of casual workers by Coca-Cola in Cambodia and union started to organise causal workers at Coke plants in.

At first, the union was unable to secure official recognition at the plant and therefore could not formally talk to employers. However with the support of the IUF, the union was eventually able to gain recognition.

Once recognised, the union was able to negotiate with the employers and win permanent contracts for 300 previously casual workers. These workers saw their salaries increase significantly and gain the job security of having a permanent contract.

Sar Mora rounded off his presentation by drawing attention to the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Cambodian government. As the country becomes an ever more hostile environment for trade unions and civil society more broadly, Sar Mora said that meaningful international solidarity with Cambodian unions is more important than ever.


John Storey, Unite the Union & IUF

In the final presentation of the session, John Storey of Unite the Union (UK) talked about various IUF-supported campaigns against one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world: Unilever.

Unilever has a long history of being a paternalist employer. In the 19th century, the company (then called Lever Brothers) built whole villages to house its workers, and to this day it nurtures a CSR image of a “company which cares”. Unfortunately, however, realities for its present-day workers can be far from caring.

John Storey [Image: Khalid Mahmood]
John Storey
[Image: Khalid Mahmood]
Today, Unilever has over 160,000 employees but management has been dead set against these workers making contact with one another across borders, which would allow them to compare wages, conditions and so on.

The position of the company sits in direct opposition to the IUF’s “TNC mandate” which is to try and organise internationally and thus be recognised as a bargaining partner by transnational companies.  The IUF recognises that TNCs operate and strategise internationally and therefore must be negotiated with at this level too. Once recognition of the IUF is achieved at the international level, this bargaining platform can be used to leverage the power of unions against the company in whatever country struggles might be happening.

The IUF’s “Casual-T” campaign

John explained that the IUF’s Unilever campaign began in response to a number of serious violations in India and Pakistan, including mass casualization of work. In 2008, the IUF campaign was launched with a focus on a specific Lipton tea factory in Khanewal, Pakistan. The campaign, named “Casual-T”, used letters from IUF affiliates from across world, who also staged protests in their respective countries, to pressure Unilever to end job casualization at the factory.

At first, local managers hired thugs to beat up and intimidate trade unionists at the Khanewal factory. In response to this, the IUF campaign escalated further. Unilever investors were targeted by protestors, as were shareholders at annual general meetings. Members of parliament in different countries were engaged which proved particularly effective in pressuring Unilever due to the company being keen for their name to remain “clean” in the public record. Different kinds of solidarity actions were carried out by IUF members around the world.

Following multiple and varied acts of international solidarity by IUF affiliates across the world, Unilever agreed to sit down and negotiate with the IUF.

Negotiations took place following a submission made by the IUF to the UK ‘s National Contact Point responsible for the application of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Workers from the Lipton plant in Khanewal, Pakistan, call for decent work
Workers from the Lipton plant in Khanewal, Pakistan

Whilst the OECD Guidelines are not in themselves a powerful mechanism for holding TNCs to account, in the case of Unilever, they proved to be a useful point of leverage when combined with a powerful wave of international solidarity action and publicity.

The campaign ended in success: hundreds of workers gained permanent employment contracts which meant a tenfold increase in permanent jobs, from 22 to 220, at the Khanewal factory. Trade unions were recognized, compensation was paid to contract workers and the campaign success became a global conversation.

John described how this campaign success led to other union wins in the company, including the winning of union recognition and the conversion of precarious to permanent jobs at Unilever plants in Russia.

TNCs as a single global workplace

From a strategic point of view, John said that we need to treat TNCs as a single global work place. We should start off with small actions which break down barriers between workers, and help workers identify with workers in other countries. Symbolic yet easy actions can create solidarity: photo opportunities with banners, sending letters, and so on – these all help.

John concluded by saying that effective international union organising is not about one-off, time-limited campaigns. Instead it is about fighting in different places over many years. As we know, companies don’t listen to workers’ concerns unless they are forced to. International bargaining will also mean nothing unless there are strong unions at the national level.

John’s final words were sobering. He said that yes, of course we need effective organising in TNCs, but unions must go beyond this. Unions and their global federations must challenge the prevailing economic/political system itself. They must turn their attention not only to TNCs but to the governments and international institutions which facilitate and legitimise exploitative corporate practices across the whole world.

Without this system-based critique, even our greatest successes will only bring about improvements for a minority of workers. This isn’t good enough.




Cambodia Beer Promoters (CFSWF campaign website)

Education International

IUF Unilever news website

Unilever international union network

Unite4Education.org (Education International campaign website)



CFSWF, Timeline of campaign events: 2011-12

K. Racz & S. Grumiau, “Promoting Decency? Report on the situation of beer promoters in Cambodia“, SOMO, August 2012


Anna Hogan, “Always (l)earning: Concerns and contradictions in Pearson’s global business strategy“, Education International, April 4th 2016

Carol Anne Spreen & Sangeeta Kamat, “Privatisation Undermines the Right to Education in India“, Education International, July 18th 2016

Curtis Riep, “Unmaking the market-maker: Pearson in the global-South“, Education International, April 13th 2016


IUF, “Unilever, IUF Settlement Resolves Conflict over Precarious Work at Lipton Pakistan“, 2010

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