Friday , January 15 2021

Heineken claims that the company helps Africa. Is it too good to be true? | News

TThe first time Heineken surprised me, he was in Tunisia in early 2011 when I covered the Jasmine Revolution and President Ben Ali's fall to a Dutch business magazine. During my reporting, I discovered that Heineken had close ties with the kleptocratic family clan that had ruled Tunisia for nearly 25 years. It was not just the relationship itself that had stunned me – it was the fact that Heineken brewed beer at all. I knew the company had business all over the world, and I had some vague notion of having breweries outside the Netherlands, but I had never understood the scale: 165 breweries in more than 70 countries, including this North African autocracy.

The following year I decided to start working on a book on Heineken's activities in Africa. When I told people in Holland about my plan, I was mostly regaled with positive stories. A woman who had been interned at Heineken told me that she chose to apply for the company because of corporate social responsibility, and she grew lyrical about the "combination of idealism and no-nonsense business". I went through Dutch news archives and found enthusiastic stories about the company's work in Africa, with headlines such as "Heineken helper".

In total, I spent six years investigating Heineken in Africa. On my first reporting trips, I was appropriately impressed. As a Dutchman, you inevitably feel some pride when you are far from home and notice how popular "our" brands are. The company, which has been operating in Africa since the 1930s, likes to present itself as a dynamic company that has achieved remarkable success on a commercially challenging continent, with many countries struggling with poor infrastructure, low levels of education, corruption and political instability .

But I started to have concerns early. In the corporate archives, I discovered that in the early 1960s Heineken was an avid supporter of a "white block" of South African countries, including Rhodesia, South Africa and the two Portuguese colonies Angola and Mozambique. I learned that in South Africa, a leader called on his colleagues not to act "contrary to the letter of the apartheid / spirit", and I also read about the huge sums Heineken channeled from Africa to a subsidiary in Switzerland and took away a important source of tax revenue from the governments of the newly formed independent states.

As I traveled across the continent, I heard about free boxes of beer given to elites in Burundi, I saw small schools in Nigeria with beer logos painted on the walls, and I experienced the misery of the drinking holes in the South African city of Soweto. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) I saw the worryingly pleasant relationship between the brewery's PR department and local journalists. These problems did not turn out to be random but formed part of a pattern.

Over time, I began to realize that Heineken's references to the difficulties of operating in Africa, but real, are part of a narrative where the company's own performance is expanded, and the responsibility for its misdemeanors lies elsewhere. The message is that it is actually nothing less than a miracle that this beer brewer can operate under such difficult circumstances and along the way do so many good things for the people and the planet.

What is absent from the story is that some of the apparent difficulties facing Heineken in Africa may also be surprisingly useful. Consider, for example. Weak governments who fail to maintain roads and health care and commit the company to find expensive solutions – clearly an obstacle to business would be believed. But at the same time, the legality of many countries makes it possible for Heineken to sell and advertise his drinks without the hassle of regulation. Education levels are often low, which can be a hindrance when looking for qualified staff – but also a blessing in disguise when there is information to spread about the supposed "positive" properties of beer.

In 2013, Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer described Africa as "the best-kept secret of international business". Heineken faces so little competition that a small bottle of beer in some African countries is not cheaper – or even more expensive – than in Europe, while production costs are lower. According to Heineken's latest available figures (2014), beer in Africa is almost 50% more profitable than elsewhere. Some markets, like Nigeria, are among the most lucrative in the world.

"Don't change it to a crusade against Heineken. You're too young for that," van Boxmeer warned me during our first meeting. I can reassure him. This is not an accusation for Heineken specifically, but a study of the ways a multinational in Africa operates. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the behavior of the Dutch beer brewer is in many respects similar to that of its competitors and other western companies. My goal is to give an accurate picture of a company that likes to blow its own trumpet with regard to the supposed African success story – a story that it has been promised quietly both in the Netherlands and internationally at the UN General Assembly.

IIn his code of conduct, Heineken describes his workers as "our greatest assets". So what is Heineken in Africa really like? Not bad at first sight. Throughout the continent, I have met former employees who look back with pride on their careers – whether they have boxes or run the brewery. Most of Heineken's employees in Africa have relatively low salaries according to local standards, but Heineken compensates for this by being an attentive and encouraging employer.

"As a simple operator, you don't earn much," says a former Rwandan leader whose first job was as a maintenance engineer. "But supervisors and higher staff are well paid, and when I started there, there were many more management roles available to other companies. If you do your job well, you will be recognized and promoted." For successful employees, there are also progressive perks such as company cars or tablet devices. The employees also appreciate the wide range of courses offered.

For most of Heineken's employees in Africa, there is no retirement plan, but at the end of their career, they are often entitled to a good retirement package. Some use the money to start their own business. I found former employees who had started a fishing village, a consulting company and a bakery. Others had been faithful to their old work style and opened a bar.

A Heineken ad in an inner city district of Johannesburg in South Africa.

A Heineken ad in an inner city district of Johannesburg in South Africa. Photo: Alamy

A group of employees get fussed over more than most: expats. The company often maintains interest-free luxury villas on or near local Heineken premises, for posted employees. The number of African leaders has risen across the continent as a whole, but in most countries the white staff remains at the top of the chopping scheme. (At the time of writing, nine out of 13 African subsidiaries are led by Europeans and four by Africans.) According to the Heineken 2014 annual report, Nigerian brewery depositors received just over $ 2,000 a year (£ 1,500) while using the same amount each day in a Dutch Nigeria's Director – Doesn't Count Bonuses.

Workplace safety is a serious problem for the Heineken employees. According to the company's own global statistics, 150 people – personnel or subcontractors – died in work-related incidents between 2005 and 2016. People have fallen from scaffolding, been crushed under fences, killed in explosions and burned alive. Others have acquired permanent disabilities due to amputations, burns and other incidents. According to a statement by Heineken of 2017, its African operations account for 26% of "on-site accidents and accidents (less + severe + fatal)".

In its operation in Africa, Heineken is increasingly using subcontractors and zero-time employees. In many countries, the income of a day worker or a temporary employee does not constitute the "decent standard of living" that the company says is its goal. A DRC cleaner can't survive on a monthly salary of $ 40-50, and even a security guard doing three times as much will find it difficult to make ends meet. In addition, external workers have no rights to healthcare or other benefits. In theory, it is the agencies that hire those to deliver these, but the inability to do so does not tend to stop Heineken from working with them.

In Lubumbashi, a city in the DRC, I met a temporary employee who told me he was not allowed to take a break. "When the executives go to lunch, the staff just keeps on working," he said. "We had to get a canteen, but the budget for it has been cut. They don't have the whip as they used to in colonial times, but the work pressure is too much and has no relation to our wages."

He said he laughed aloud at the slogan Fondation Bralima, Heineken's local charity: "Committed to the Congolese Well-Being." His conclusion: "Let them start with the well-being of their own workers."

If there is a group to whom the last word of the temp must apply, it is "beer-promoting girls", young women employed to help increase sales in bars. In 2000, a group of relief organizations in Cambodia sounded the alarm about the risks women's women face in order to carry out their work. They talked about promotional women as being related to "indirect sex workers" who earned very little and were often harassed, pressured to have sex with their customers, and at risk of being involved in HIV.

Heineken set up an internal working group to solve the problem in Asia. "It was difficult because these girls were not directly employed by us and the turnover was great," remembers former HR manager Hans Wesseling.

Katinka van Cranenburgh, a former Heineken director who was in charge of the HR issue, says it was first an important shareholder complaining that significant action had been taken. "Internally, we appealed to morals and women's rights, but we saw that an angry letter from an investor gave better results," she says. Heineken issued a series of guidelines entitled Promotion Girls Policy: Sell Beer Safely. In the future, young women will receive training, and the company promised to try to ensure better working conditions.

As early as 2003, Heineken, according to internal documents, became aware that similar problems arose in Africa. A spokesman at that time commented on a Dutch day: "It's nothing special. It's like the girls you used to see on the streets of Holland, and gave away free magazines for a private TV transmitter and wearing a dress with her logo. "

Wesseling, who worked in Heineken from 1991 to 2005, says: "We had promotion girls in Africa. We knew this, despite internal denials. It was extra problematic because we had run a very successful AIDS policy in Africa." In 2001, HIV-positive Heineken workers in Africa and their immediate families were offered free therapy for life that would continue after retirement or redundancy. Therapy always came with advice, free condoms and HIV testing – and Heineken's treatment of his workers won praise and admiration all over the world, including among American politicians. "That gave our people in the United States a great story," Wesseling said. "So no one would kill the image of African promotional girls selling our beer under the circumstances. Better to hit it as a local custom:" That's what they do over there. ""

In 2007, an internal study showed that Heineken used about 15,000 promotional women globally, mainly in non-Western countries. No less than 70 markets were considered risky for the promotion women because the work was involved or could lead to sexual abuse, low wages, or being forced to wear provocative uniforms. Sixteen of these markets were in Africa: the circumstances were least favorable there, and Heineken is said to use nearly 2,000 sales women. According to internal documentation, only an African market was hassle-free.

The person whom Heineken chose to carry out this study was a 21-year-old trainee who emphasized that the brewer did not regard this as a major issue. "I was a little surprised that they asked me for such a delicate and important issue," said former intern Diego Centurion.

Further studies in the DRC, the country most abused were reported, showed that undesirable progress not only came from customers but also from the Heineken employees. "The enormous uncertainty of keeping a job combined with the absence of employee rights with legal status makes PW [promotion women] Abused by Multiple Stakeholders ", the internal report noted. Often, the women who earned very little had to sleep with leaders if they wanted to keep their jobs, but if they were to see a gynecologist or get an abortion that was often illegal and dangerous, they had to sort everything themselves and pay for it, they also had to drink 5-10 large bottles of beer every working day to persuade customers to consume more.

What did Bralima, Congolese subsidiary of Heineken, come out of this with regard to extra sales? "I don't think they were so valuable," says a former DRC director. "It was a mess. When this thing happened in Cambodia, we also got rules, but they didn't change much. For a while, the management led taxis to get girls home at night, but eventually they decided too expensive. Girls were smaller than the minimum wage and were used by Bralima staff. Very often these girls were in trouble, very vulnerable. When we paid them so little, they were almost forced to go home with a man. "

Stefaan van der Borght, Heineken's former director of global health affairs, says Heineken at one point tried to promote boys: "We wanted to remove the association with sex, but it didn't work. Another problem was that we used subcontractors for flexibility. Sometimes you needed many girls, parties, and at other times it was quiet, so you burdened those subcontractors with the workload and social obligations while Heineken was held accountable. "

Promance women in DRC and Nigeria continue to work under the most dreadful conditions. "Every night I'm touched my will. It doesn't matter if I work in an expensive cafe or a popular bar," says Fred, a promotion girl in Lagos. Her colleague Sylvia adds, "We are learning to handle this. Under the instruction, they tell us there will be annoying men. But you have to tolerate them because you are trying to increase sales and make the brand stronger."

"We learn that we should not react aggressively or say" stop. "By leaving, let them know that it is not appreciated," says Fred.

But what if someone continues? Is there anyone from the agency that hires the women, anyone they can talk to? "Yes, sometimes, but often not," she continues. "It is a public space so there will be no rape. It can only happen when the girls go with the customers. But this is a choice. Our employer thinks: If you don't like being upset, then look for Other work. I don't even notice it anymore. I expect it. "

The woman's incomes differ from one agency to another, and on average they earn around the time of this research. $ 8 pr. Day. In an expensive city like Lagos it is not so much, but it goes with other forms of unskilled work.

Many women risk sleeping with their customers. Fred and Sylvia believe that at least half of their colleagues do this. "These girls can't support themselves and they are desperate. How much more they make money," peace said. And what do employers think? Are they trying to prevent it?

"No, absolutely not," says Sylvia. "They like it when you act like this because it helps with sales."

Fred agrees: "They keep girls that way because they bring many customers."

In Lagos alone, hundreds or possibly thousands of promotional women are used to selling Heineken brands. The situation in Nigeria is not unusual. According to a well-connected source, there are at least 100 women active in Kinshasa, captive of the DRC, and an unknown number in other Congolese cities.

Heineken's Nigerian distribution center.

Heineken's Nigerian distribution center. Photo: Maarten Udema / Heineken

"Of course, these girls are harassed, they are Make up for everything (girls you can do something with). It's part of the profession, "says a Kinshasa salesman who used to work with the women. He calls them" whores "before continuing:" Sometimes Bralima uses real prostitutes because they know how to seduce a customer, And that's an advantage. But others are stricter and draw a line, the customer must not cross. They have a difficult time because if you work in a bar, you are considered a public girl. The brewery doesn't care about them. "

Even for other Heineken employees in Africa, it is not always easy to be a woman. According to a number of people I spoke to across the continent, ambitious women sometimes have to be intimate with the HR manager – usually a local employee – to get a job or secure a promotion. Expansion on management level knows rumors, but rarely does it consider their priority to bring the problem to the attention.

Wesseling, the former HR manager, says: "We knew that in the 1990s things were going on in the Congo that was past the pale. We had a very strong HR manager holding a selection procedure that wouldn't Being accepted here. Women had to provide sexual services for a job. "Heineken's current CEO, Van Boxmeer, was general manager of Bralima from 1993 to 1996. But, according to Wesseling, he did not say he was the general manager there.

Other insiders told stories of expedition leaders in Africa about handing out jobs to their girlfriends. The Rwandan girlfriend from a top executive in the DRC became a fuel supplier to one of their breweries, even though it was previously cheaper and more reliable, according to the knowledge. In Nigeria, an expedition director gave secretary jobs to two of his conquests, for which they were completely unqualified, according to colleagues. And a national director allegedly asked for female employees, he first wanted to be sent to the medical department to get an AIDS test.

When my book on Heineken was released in the Netherlands last year, the Dutch parliament adopted a proposal for the current Minister of Development and Foreign Trade, Sigrid Kaag, to get tough on abuse within or by Dutch company abroad. Misuse of promotional women had direct consequences for the company. Global Fund, backed by Bill Gates, suspended cooperation with Heineken because of the scandal and the Dutch ASN Bank after a third investigation, removed Heineken from its sustainable investment fund and has so far stopped all other financial commitments with the company.

Heineken revised a previous statement claiming that it employed only 200 promotional women in two African countries. An internal study now revealed an estimated 4,000 women in 13 countries. The company announced a number of measures: clear and unambiguous rules, training, dress codes, no alcohol at work and transport home after work. These are almost word for word, the same measures that were put into a political paper in 2004, which remained an empty promise.

But this time, Heineken said things would really be different. So in March 2018, the firm made a firm promise that reassured some politicians and stakeholders. "If we cannot guarantee good working conditions for our promoters in certain markets by the end of June, we will stop using them there."

In the summer of 2018, I went to Kenya to see for myself whether Heineken had kept his word this time. Was I even surprised? I met six promotional women who all told me the same stories: Nothing was changed. They still had to accept sexual harassment as part of the job, their uniforms were so short that they felt like prostitutes, and some of them were forced to sleep with their bosses. In an interview with a Dutch newspaper a few months later, Van Boxmeer called my reporting on the promotion women "exaggerated" without specifying why. "We cannot be responsible if a customer treats a promoter inappropriately," he said. "We can't control everything."

Freddy Heineken, the company's legendary CEO, who died in 2002, used to say, "People don't drink beer. They drink marketing." He understood that beer sales are a matter of psychology successfully. It's about image and emotion. For many years, the Heineken image is largely unconscious of the reality of its activities in Africa. "I can tell from the bottom of my heart that here at Heineken, we want to improve things and want to make a positive contribution to the communities in which we operate," said a Heineken head office employee in Amsterdam. "We're trying to stick to all the rules, how difficult it may be. I'm sorry this is trivialized with comments suggesting that it's all just trading and marketing for us. It's very hard to be an island in perfection in a miserable sea, but please doubt our sincerity. "

Heineken as a "perfection". And Africa, where Heineken made billions in the last century? "A sea of ​​misery." But of course we should not doubt Heineken's sincerity.

Translated by Bram Posthumus. Customized from Heineken in Africa: A multinational triggered by Olivier van Beemen, published by Hurst on February 14 and available on

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