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“When Wound Care Hurts”: Hospital equipment contaminated with human rights violations by Swedish-owned company

”In hospitals across Sweden, the rest of Europe and in North America, the products of Mölnlycke Health Care help save lives and reduce human suffering. In Samut Prakarn, they have the opposite effect”.

In 2001, Swedish freelance journalist Mr. Jon Weman exposed a severe lack of human rights standards in one of the factories of Thai Klinipro, subsidiary of Swedish Mölnlycke Health Care. Ten years later, not much has changed and an interview with the Thai Klinipro union president Ms. Natpapas Kaewthong reveals continuous human rights violations and denial of international labor standards.

Mölnlycke Health Care is a Swedish multinational company that produces equipment for the health care sector around the world. At the end of 2008, the company had 6,200 employees on permanent contracts, with around 57% working in Asia, the majority of which are employed in factories in Thailand and Malaysia. In addition to this number is also the share of factory workers employed on sub-contracts.

Ms. Natpapas was one of the founding members of the Thai Klinipro labor union in 2000.  She has worked for the company for 13 years and explains that there barely have been any improvements in terms of working conditions and benefits for the workers over the years. The factory management still does not recognize the union and keeps discriminating its committee and members by filing law suits and interfering in their activities.

The Thai Klinipro factory in Samut Prakarn used to have an information board, but all the information on the board had to be accepted by the management and no union information was ever allowed to be published; “It was not our space”, says Ms. Natpapas.

At the second plant in Chon Buri, Ms. Natpapas explains that workers can be forced to work over-time, a work-shift that lasts 13 hours. She also says that many of the Klinipro workers become ill and faint due to stress and long working hours.

Currently, the Thai Klinipro union has 600 members in the two factories and the number of committee members is 13. The union is one out of 8 company unions that are affiliated to the national labor federation Chemical Workers Union Alliance (CWUA).

The other unions include Kawasumi (hospital equipment), Thai Industrial Gases (gas industry), Giffith (food industry), Double Star (textile), Crystal (textile), CP (textile), Royal Industry Thailand (rubber and plastic bottles for children). The alliance of 3000 members aims to develop a unified policy and merge into one stronger union in the future.

As a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Sweden adheres to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises adopted in 1976 by the OECD member governments as part of the Declaration on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises.

In its Code of Conduct, Mölnlycke Health Care emphasizes its adherence to these Guidelines as one of the principal documents underlining the company’s policy to “promote and comply with the principles of ethical and social responsibility associated with human rights, the workplace and working conditions”.

The Guidelines are a set of non-legally binding principles that declares transnational investors’ responsibility in countries where they operate. Chapter 4 outlines the minimum requirement of companies to reference to the “human rights expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and to the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the 1998 International Labour Organisation Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” regardless of operation and country in which they operate.

These rights include the fundamental rights of non-discrimination on the grounds of employment and occupation, freedom of association combined with the freedom to form and to join trade unions and the right to collective bargaining.

Rights relating to trade union activity are also found under Chapter 5 of the OECD Guidelines regarding Employment and Industrial Relations, calling for companies to respect the right of their employees to establish or join trade unions and to recognize these unions for the purpose of collective bargaining.

Despite their “commitments to human rights”, Mölnlycke Health Care seems to show no interest in the Thai workers of their subsidiary factories. When Swedish journalist Mr. Jon Weman went to Thailand to investigate the situation ten years ago, he met with labor union activist Mr. Somjot Pruksakasemsu.

According to Mr. Somjot, the Swedish management visited the factory in May 2001 but had announced their visit to the Thai management a week beforehand, giving them time to clean up the factory and lower the production speed to a human level.

The Swedish representatives were only in the factory for one hour, during which time they did not speak to any of the workers since they did not bring a translator. Mr. Somjot also said that pregnant workers were locked up during the visit and were not released until the Swedish representatives had left.

Despite what is going on inside the factories, Mr. Anders Klinton, Vice President of the Mölnlycke Supply Chain Management, says the Swedish management work actively together with their suppliers to guarantee not only efficiency but also respect for human rights, health and security.

In 2001, one year after establishing the union, 23 people were dismissed, including the whole union committee and some of the members. Ms. Natpapas and another worker were the only ones who returned to the company after winning their court cases.

She further explains that bribery has been used repeatedly by the company to make people stay away from the union. They are offered better positions and employees who support the management in court are often promoted, whereas the union members are more easily fired.

Ms. Natpapas describes the harassment and discrimination that is allowed to continue at the factories, especially against the committee members of the union. They are, for example, kept under strict scrutiny by the management who are actively searching for reasons to dismiss them. Five years ago, Ms. Natpapas was sued for wearing a ring in the factory, although the other workers are allowed to wear such jewelery.

In accordance with the OECD Guidelines, the company or Government representatives should not interfere in union affairs. However, during collective bargaining, Ms. Natpapas explains that the company asks the Government to order the union to submit membership numbers and records of membership fees, obstructing the union from engaging fully in the collective bargaining process. 

The interest in union statistics only occurs when the union is engaged in collective bargaining. When there are no ongoing negotiations, Ms. Natpapas says the company does not care about these figures.

Government authorities are cooperating with the company to make it more difficult for the union to carry out its work. As the union committee consists of full-time factory workers, the time for union work is very limited and when the government demands the union to check membership details, it has little time left to continue the collective bargaining.

The workers at the Thai Klinipro union are currently continuing their collective bargaining and have submitted many basic demands, such as the installation of a new info board where union activities and information are allowed to be published, a 20 Baht allowance for lunch, to have the company’s annual “family day” on a weekday and two days holiday per week instead of one.

All demands are basic; however, only 3 of them still remain in negotiation including an annual bonus increase by one month salary, 500 Baht increase in allowance and a 200,000 Baht retirement benefit and right to early retirement after 15 years of employment. 

Demands by the workers have been submitted many times, but little change has been made. The annual increase in salary has only been 4% and the minimum wage for permanent workers ranges between 7,000-8,000 Baht per month. For temporary workers employed on sub-contracts, 214 Baht per day is the minimum wage.

Mölnlycke Healthcare’s “commitment” to human rights as stated in their Code of Conduct also applies in relation to their suppliers and subcontractors, stating; “If any human rights abuses are committed by our partners, then it is our duty to assist in ensuring that such violations cease, or if this fail, to stop working with that partner”.

The Swedish company recognizes that they are “in a position to contribute towards improving working conditions and promoting workers’ rights in our major suppliers’ factories”.

However, in violation of their own Code of Conduct, international labor law, OECD Guidelines and core human rights treaties, Mölnlycke Health Care does the opposite and keeps ignoring the welfare of their workers in Thailand.

“When wound care hurts” is the title of a medical publication by the Ostomy Wound Management supported and sponsored by an educational grant from Mölnlycke Health Care. After meeting with Ms. Natpapas, one of thousand toiling in their subsidiary factories in Thailand, it is ironic how well this title would suit the business of Mölnlycke Health Care.

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