India: Unilever Drives Sales Worker to Suicide with Relentless “VRS” Pressure
Rajeev Jain (second from left) with his family.
Hindustan 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 Jain’s life.

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.