By Tunde Osho
Dutch brewer Heineken said it will do more to protect is sales agents in Africa after a Dutch newspaper, NRC published allegations of widespread sexual abuse of sales agents in 10 countries where the company operates.
According to the report, Heineken indirectly employs about 2,000 women as “promotional girls” in Africa out of a 15,000 women global sales force based on internal research done in 2007.
The sales agents job involve going around to bars, cafes and restaurants with promotional crates to persuade owners to stock the company’s brands.
The report says that many of the female sales agents were sexually assaulted or propositioned by bar staff in the course of their work. The report also alleges that some prostitutes combined beer promotion with their regular work to win new clients for both themselves and the brewing company.
One sales agent named Sylvia who worked to promote Nigerian Breweries’ brands 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.”
A colleague of Sylvia, who goes by the name Peace, said she experienced unwanted sexual advances 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 the job was outsourced to outside contracting firms. However, it vowed to step up monitoring to stem the abuse.
Sylvia and Peace were not directly employed by Nigerian Breweries Plc, the local unit of Heineken NV in Nigeria, but through an agency that was hired through another subcontracting firm making the chain of command unclear. On average, the sales agents make about ₦3,115 (€7) per night’s work. They estimate that half of their colleagues earned more through sexual services.
“Those girls couldn’t live on their wages and were desperate. Sex earned more,” said Peace.
“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.”
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” he said.
Heineken carried out an internal study in 2007 and labelled 70 markets as “high risk” for women working to sell their brands, but the findings did not lead to measurable changes, according to a former personnel staff of the brewing company Katinka van Cranenburgh.
“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,” she said.