Championing workers’ rights at a Nissan plant in Mississippi: Will international labour standards stand the test?

John Tarver, communications expert and founder of Atriptyc Communications, www.atriptyc.com. John can be contacted at [email protected]

Morris Mock used to be a small-town guy with a simple life. He is the son of a preacher and lives in Pearl, Mississippi where he enjoys eating out and going to church with his wife and daughter. A few years ago, his biggest claims to fame were singing in the church choir and being notoriously recognizable for the red baseball cap that rarely leaves his head.

Today that’s changed. Morris still sings in the choir but he also appears regularly in local, national and international media with the likes of Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover, the American Senator Bernie Sanders, and Members of the French Parliament. What’s the reason for this change? He has become a brave spokesperson for his colleagues at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi who want to form a union but the plant’s management has been using intimidation tactics and threats to keep workers from voting to unionize.

For over a decade, workers at the Mississippi plant have struggled to overcome management’s intimidation and scare tactics. Workers claim that management has threatened to fire employees who show interest in or share information about unions. Management has also stated that union activity could lead to the plant’s closure.

Nissan has partnered with Renault in a global joint venture.  The CEO of this Renault-Nissan Alliance, Carlos Ghosn claims the company has no problems with unions – after all, it works with unions all over the world. However, evidence shows that management uses intimidation and anti-union videos to dissuade workers from holding a fair election to unionize.

So why don’t the workers hold a vote? “The workers are so scared.” Says Morris. “A lot of them support the union. But even with a majority, there is still too much fear, too many threats, too much intimidation.”

Threatening to fire workers for unionizing is illegal in the United States. In 2014, the U.S. National Labor Rights Board, after its own independent investigation, issued a complaint against Nissan for violating workers’ rights when a supervisor threatened to fire employees for being openly pro-union. This complaint is all the more significant since: only six percent of workers’ charges resulted in a Board complaint in 2014. Nissan has said it would continue to defend itself against this complaint.

Two months later, Renault-Nissan’s CEO, Mr. Ghosn, testified before the French Parliament’s Economic Affair’s Commission. Renault is the largest shareholder of Nissan, and the two are rapidly converging key business functions. The French government is the largest shareholder of Renault. When asked in a meeting of the French parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee about the situation at the Mississippi plant, Mr. Ghosn said that the plant respected American labor laws.

Morris met with parliamentarians in France – and with national labor groups – in hopes of receiving support and to participate in protests. His newly found PR skills are working. A group of 35 French MPs and Members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to Mr. Ghosn asking him to explain the state of affairs in Canton. That was in early 2016; they are still waiting for a reply.

In between meetings with elected officials, Morris has been learning about international initiatives that are meant to protect workers from intimidation and threats. One such initiative is the United Nations Global Compact, of which Renault and Nissan are participants. In Nissan’s 2016 Sustainability Report, Mr. Ghosn recalled, “We… continued our decade-long commitment to the core principles of the United Nations Global Compact.” Principle 3 of the compact states that “Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”.

So, is Nissan living up to its commitment to international standards in pursuing an aggressive campaign against workers’ freedom of association? It would appear not. When asked about the discord between their actions in Mississippi and their commitment to international standards, Nissan replied that “international labor standards … do not apply to private enterprises like Nissan. Rather, they apply to governments, which then use them as guidance to structure national law.” This certainly raises the question why businesses such as Nissan have formally committed to the principles of the Global Compact.

Another set of international guidelines has come to Morris’ attention: the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (MNE). Two labor organizations filed an OECD complaint that was accepted by the U. S. State Department’s national contact point; the contact point helps resolve non-compliance issues related to the guidelines.  While the State Department found that the issues raised were substantiated, Nissan refused the State Department’s offer to mediate “because long-established guidelines for bringing a union vote already exist”.

Morris and his colleagues haven’t let that discourage them. Their supporters at international labor organizations have filed OECD MNE complaints against the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Nissan and Renault in The Netherlands, Japan and France, where the three entities are respectively incorporated. They are hoping the companies live up to their commitments and undertake real human rights due diligence.

While waiting to find out if the OECD complaints are accepted, Morris and his colleagues staged the largest labor rights demonstration held in Mississippi since the 1960s.  Joined by Danny Glover, Senator Bernie Sanders and several thousand people in Mississippi, they came together on March 4 to demand that Nissan respect the workers’ fundamental right to form a union. From Paris and Brussels, French and European members of parliament sent strong messages of support for their cause. The workers reported that intimidation tactics intensified in the lead up to the protest. There was even a new video that aired in the plant to dissuade workers from attending.

Most people are aware of the long and violent history of voter suppression in Mississippi. Morris lives close to where Medgar Wiley Evers was assassinated for his activity in favor of voters’ rights, and only a few hours’ drive from where Martin Luther King met with the same fate for supporting labor rights. Morris sees his struggle as a continuation of Mr. Evers’ and Dr. King’s efforts.

Yet despite all of this, when Morris talks about his company, he remains very objective, even respectful of his employer. “This is the poorest state in the country, and Nissan is paying good money—for Mississippi, but we still need to educate folks. The worker needs a voice in the workplace.”

Amen to that.

Useful links

OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises

 

A berry bad summer

Click on the photo to see why they like berries

Vietnamese farm-workers recently locked up their bosses to protest against low pay and hard working conditions. Their action might well have gone unnoticed except for one thing: It happened in Lapland.

What were Vietnamese workers doing in northern Sweden? Picking berries, or trying to. Every summer, the Nordic forests fill up with delicious fruit – blueberries, lingonberries and the amber-coloured cloudberry. Collecting them is a favourite summer pastime, and, thanks to the “right to roam” allemansrätten law, people in Sweden are more or less free to pick berries wherever they find them.  

 

But in recent years, this tradition has become commercialised, with thousands of foreign workers flying in to reap the wild harvest. In the past, many were rice farmers from Thailand. They planted their rice in June, travelled to Sweden for the summer berry season, and then returned home to harvest their own rice crop in the autumn. As Bertil Lintner writes, the work was hard but lucrative, with workers bringing home between $2,850 and $5,700 – “much more than a doctor or other well-paid professional back in Thailand”.

Lately, however, the annual trek has become less rewarding. Travelling to Sweden has become more expensive and the berries are harder to find. One picker told the Bangkok Post that he used to be able to find wild berries within 20 kilometres of a town centre. But these days he has to drive 100 to 400 kilometres. In part that’s just because some years are good for berries and some are not. But it also reflects growing competition.    

Problems came to a head this summer with the arrival of workers from China and Vietnam. Not only did they hit a bad summer for berries but, according to locals, many were spooked by the mosquito-ridden northern forests and had little farming experience.

 The workers also complained of impossible targets. One of them, Le Thi Hong, said the recruiting agency had promised workers they would be able to pick between 60 and 120 kilograms of berries a day, Västerbottens Folkblad reported. In reality, he said, they were lucky if they could manage 10 to 30 kg. Workers had mortgaged their homes to travel to Sweden, he added, and risked losing them if they didn’t meet their targets. Discontent led the Chinese and Vietnamese pickers to stage a series of protests over the summer, including locking up their bosses and going on a 15-kilometre night march.

The story is unusual but, unfortunately, not all that rare. Fruit-picking can provide useful, short-term labour, but it’s also often rife with scams. Many pickers are hired by contractors and may have to pay relatively high up-front fees, which they can only earn back by meeting quotas. Many also are seasonal workers, and so may have limited protection under labour laws. (And, while there’s no suggestion of forced labour in Sweden, in the worst cases farm-workers – both locals and migrants – may effectively be slave labour, as this ILO report discusses.)

Sweden has tried to protect the pickers by issuing warnings about scams through its embassies and imposing a minimum wage. Local unions, however, say more needs to be done. But in reality there’s probably only so much the government can do: So long as hiring agencies in the pickers’ home countries create unrealistic expectations, would-be fruit pickers are going to be open to exploitation. Back in Sweden, there have been calls for a boycott of commercially picked berries to show support for pickers who have been unfairly treated. But, as Isabel Conway comments, the idea of giving up their beloved berries “may be a sacrifice too hard for many Swedes to swallow”.

 Useful links

OECD Insights: International Migration

 OECD work on international migration

Social issues (including migration) at the OECD iLibrary

The International Labour Organisation

Migration and asylum policy in Sweden (government website)