Unilever Drives Sales Worker to Suicide with Relentless “VRS”
Jain (second from left) with his family.
Lever’s Culture of Intimidation, Irresponsibility and Harassment:
The Death of Rajeev Jain
On the night of 3 November 2006, in a state of despair and desperation
brought about because of his treatment at work, Rajeev Jain hanged himself
in a hotel room where he had been attending a Brooke Bond sales representatives
meeting (Brooke Bond was merged into Hindustan Lever, Unilever’s
Indian subsidiary, in 1996).
Brother Rajeev had worked for Unilever in India for more than 20 years,
devoting his adult working life to building the company’s sales
and market share. Yet, management targeted his section for a voluntary
retirement scheme (VRS) with a goal of getting 150 workers to sign-up.
Only 105 workers accepted the VRS and management began to pressure workers
to achieve its target.
VRS across India is little more than a management strategy to shed companies
of experienced, older workers in order to ramp up profits. More often
than not VRS targets trade union members, replacing those workers with
unorganised contract workers on lower conditions and wages. In addition,
workers who accept VRS soon find that the value of the money paid out
is whittled away quickly by inflation.
Rajeev Jain had refused the “offer” of VRS because he wanted
to continue working and because he had a family to support, his children
were studying and he was paying off a loan to buy his home.
In response to this refusal, his managers decided to give him no option
but to accept the VRS. Suddenly, he was declared “surplus”
and a new person was hired to take over his work. Immediately, his monthly
pay packet was reduced by more than one-third as he no longer had access
to a sales incentive payment related to his previous job.
The reduction in his income meant that he could not meet all the costs
related to his children’s education and his housing loan. This
forced him into a deepening depression.
The final straw for Rajeev Jain occurred on the 3rd of November. While
attending a sales representatives meeting he was handed a letter signed
by Mr Venkatesh, Regional Manager, which informed him that he had been
assigned to do “merchandising”—he was to visit shops
where Unilever products are sold and clean stock sitting on shelves.
Management thus assigned to him a job that was well below his skills
and experience; work, in effect, which regarded his more than two decades
of service with the company as naught and which can only be interpreted
as deliberately designed to demean him.
Brother Rajeev took the letter and retreated to his hotel room, where
in a state of total despair he hanged himself. He left behind two children,
his wife and his mother, for whom he had been caring. No person would
abandon their family unless they were faced with such huge pressure,
depression and despair that they could see no future. These were the
conditions that the Unilever management had helped create in Rajeev
Following the death of Rajeev Jain, his union, the Brooke Bond Federation
(a founding member of the IUF-affiliated All-India Council of Unilever
Unions, AICUU), wrote to the Chairman of the company complaining of
the treatment meted out. A previously planned 50th anniversary celebration
of the Brooke Bond Federation’s founding, which management had
been invited to, was cancelled in disgust by union members upon learning
of Rajeev Jain’s fate.
Criminal proceedings have been initiated against four senior managers
since Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code makes 'abetment of suicide'
an offence punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and fine. In court,
the lawyer for the company claimed that those charged, and by implication
the company, are law-abiding, conveniently forgetting Hindustan’s
Lever’s repeated violations against the orders of the Industrial
Courts, the High Court and even the Supreme Court (see Outlaw
Conduct by Unilever Indian Subsidiary Prompts International Union Action
at OECD). The charges remain pending.
The reality of Unilever’s “duty of care” to its workers
is nothing short of a scandal. The Brooke Bond Federation has had to
counsel a number of members they feared would commit suicide who are
facing similar circumstances as Rajeev Jain. Previously there have been
cases of suicide by Hindustan Lever workers who accepted VRS but soon
found their money ran out and with no work available they were driven
into a state of fatal depression.
AICUU members have reported that two senior managers have been asked
to leave. But this does nothing to change Hindustan Lever’s relentless
“voluntary” retirement scheme, which is any anything but
voluntary, and which is the real cause of Brother Rajeev’s death.
Franklyn D’Souza, Vice-President of the AICUU, upon hearing of
Rajeev Jain’s death, stated, “this is immensely sad, but
with the actions of management something such as this was bound to happen.
We must expose the management behaviour against workers; otherwise we
will have more victims in the future.”
The Brooke Bond Federation donated about a year’s salary as solidarity
support for Rajeev Jain’s widow and family.