Thursday, May 15, 2008

Telenor, Peace Prize winner caught in labour scandal

Telenor officials, with chief executive Jon Fredrik Baksaas at center, admit they have failed to adequately monitor working conditions at GrameenPhone's suppliers.
PHOTO: SVEIN ERIK FURULUND


NINA BERGLUND

A DANISH TV documentary has revealed miserable working conditions and environmental violations at companies in Bangladesh that act as suppliers to GrameenPhone, which is co-owned by Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor and firms founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

It's an embarrassing labour scandal for Telenor, which itself is majority-owned by the government of Norway, a country that prides itself on championing fair labour conditions and human rights.

It also reflects poorly on Grameen Telecom and Grameen Bank, which own 38 percent of GrameenPhone (Telenor has 62 percent) and which were founded by Peace Prize-winner Yunus not least to help lift people in Bangladesh out of abject poverty through the micro-credit system.

The documentary, made by Danish journalist Tom Heinemann and to be aired on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Thursday evening, reveals shocking working conditions at the firms supplying GrameenPhone. Employees were shown working with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals virtually without protection. Workers were as young as 13 years, a clear violation of child labour laws. The firms were caught allowing polluted wastewater to spill into nearby rice fields.
And in one case, a worker was killed when he fell into an unsecured pool of acid.

Telenor, clearly believing that the best defense is a good offense, opted to reveal some of the findings of the documentary even before it was aired. Telenor officials claim they were shaken by the documentary's findings, and admit they failed to adequately monitor the operations of GrameenPhone's suppliers.

"We are deeply moved by the case, and the human side of it," Telenor chief executive Jon Fredrik Baksaas told reporters. He called the labour violations "completely unacceptable," claiming Telenor had trained the firms in health and safety issues. "But we've clearly been bad about following up afterwards," Baksaas admitted.

He neglected to mention the worker fatality, but confirmed it when questioned by a reporter from Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende.

Telenor and the Norwegian state have generated huge profits on GrameenPhone, which has as many as 20 million customers, but Baksaas said he didn't feel badly that the operation earns a lot on the work of poor employees. "We haven't taken out substantial dividends on what we've earned in Bangladesh," Baksaas said. "The money has gone into investments that are building up the country."

Norway's government minister in charge of business and industry, Dag Terje Andersen, wrote in an e-mail to Aftenposten that the working conditions shown in the documental "assuming they are accurate, clearly are unacceptable."

Andersen claimed, however, that Telenor has worked actively for years to make its own ethical regulations part of all operations, also those at suppliers. "It looks like the follow-up on the part of Telenor was inadequate," he wrote. Telenor has since conducted inspections at five suppliers of mobile telephone masts, and has fired one of them.

Telenor and Yunus have been involved in a long-simmering conflict over ownership of GrameenPhone. Yunus has wanted Telenor to reduce its stake. #

Photos Telenor: (Above) The documentary shows miserable working conditions at several firms supplying Telenor-owned GrameenPhone. Hard-hats were donned when Telenor came to inspect. (Below) Telenor's Baksaas with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Together, they own GrameenPhone, although Yunus has wanted Telenor to reduce its stake.

First published in Aftenposten (News from Norway), May 14, 2008