Brewing giant Heineken has pledged to do more to protect its sales agents in Africa after NRC published allegations of widespread sexual abuse in 10 countries where it operates.
Around 2,000 women work for the Amsterdam-based multinational firm as ‘promotional girls’ on the continent as part of a global sales force numbering 15,000 women, according to internal research carried out in 2007.
Their work involves going round bars, cafes and restaurants with promotional crates to persuade owners to stock Heineken brands. NRC said many of the recruiters were sexually assaulted or propositioned by cafe staff in the course of their work. In some cases prostitutes combined beer promotion with their regular work to win new clients for both themselves and the brewery.
One Nigerian-based promoter, named as Sylvia by the newspaper, said the sales teams were warned not to make a fuss about unwanted sexual advances. ‘They warned us that we would come across men with bad intentions. You have to tolerate it because you want to make more sales and strengthen the brand.’
Her colleague, named as Peace, said she encountered unwanted sexual attention on a nightly basis. ‘It’s a public place so it doesn’t get as far as rape. That only happens if the girls go with the clients, but that’s their choice. Our employer says: if you can’t stand being touched, go and find another job.’
Heineken said it was difficult to monitor the work because most of it was outsourced, but pledged to step up its efforts to cut out abuse of its agents. ‘The practices described are totally at odds with what we stand for as a company and we condemn these abuses in the strongest terms,’ the company said in a statement.
‘This subject deserves more attention in Africa than it has received in recent years from us and other interested parties. Together with our local workers’ councils, promotional agencies and other relevant parties we will take further steps to tackle these abuses and prevent them happening in future.’
Sylvia and Peace were not directly employed by Nigerian Breweries, Heineken’s subsidiary in Lagos, but via an agency that was hired through another subcontractor, making the chain of command unclear. On average they were paid the equivalent of €7 for a night’s work.
They estimated that around half their colleagues earned extra money through sexual services. ‘Those girls couldn’t live on their wages and were desperate. Sex earned more,’ said Peace.
Emeka Dumbili, of the Alcohol and Drugs Research Institute in Benin City, told NRC Heineken was still recruiting young women in Nigerian provincial cities in order to use their bodies to sell the company’s products. ‘It’s a marketing strategy to sell beer: it reinforces drinking beer as a masculine, heterosexual activity.’
Heineken carried out an internal study in 2007 which led to 70 markets being labelled ‘high risk’ for women working to sell their brands, but the findings prompted too few active measures, former personnel staff member Katinka van Cranenburgh told NRC.
She said: ‘A few improvements were probably made in some countries, but head office has taken a hands-off approach and isn’t on top of the situation. I noticed that the guidelines are no longer online with other company policies, as if it’s no longer an issue.’