The first time Heineken amazed me was in Tunisia, in early 2011, when I was covering the Jasmine revolution and the fall of President Ben Ali for a Dutch business newspaper. During my reporting, I discovered that Heineken maintained close ties with the kleptocratic family clan that had ruled Tunisia for almost 25 years. It was not just the relationship itself that had me stunned – it was the fact that Heineken was brewing beer there at all. I knew the company was doing business all over the world, and I had some vague notion that it would have breweries outside the Netherlands, but I had never realised the scale: 165 breweries in more than 70 countries, including this north African autocracy.
The following year, I decided to begin work on a book about Heineken’s operations in Africa. When I told people in the Netherlands about my plan, I was mostly regaled with positive stories. A woman who had done an internship at Heineken told me she chose to apply to the company because of its corporate social responsibility, and she waxed 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 like “Heineken is Helping”.
In total, I spent six years researching Heineken in Africa. On my first few reporting trips, I was suitably impressed. As a Dutchman, you inevitably feel a certain pride when you are far away from home and notice how popular “our” brands are. The company, which has operated in Africa since the 1930s, likes to present itself as a dynamic enterprise that has achieved remarkable success on a commercially challenging continent, where many countries struggle with bad infrastructure, low education levels, corruption and political instability.
But I started having misgivings early on. In the company archives, I discovered that in the early 1960s Heineken was an ardent supporter of a “white bloc” of southern African countries, including Rhodesia, South Africa and the two Portuguese colonies Angola and Mozambique. I learned that in South Africa a senior manager urged his colleagues not to act “in opposition to the letter/spirit of apartheid”, and I also read about the enormous amounts of money that Heineken channelled from Africa into a subsidiary in Switzerland, taking away an important source of fiscal revenue from the governments of newly formed independent states.
While travelling around the continent, I heard about free crates of beer given to elites in Burundi, I saw little schools in Nigeria with beer logos painted on the walls, and I witnessed the misery of the drinking dens in the South African township of Soweto. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I saw the worryingly cosy relationship between the brewery’s PR department and local journalists. These issues turned out not to be incidental, but formed part of a pattern.
In time, I began to realise that Heineken’s references to the difficulties of operating in Africa, however real, form part of a narrative in which the company’s own achievements are enlarged and responsibility for its wrongdoing lies elsewhere. The message is that it is actually nothing short of a miracle that this beer brewer can operate under such difficult circumstances and, along the way, does so many good things for the people and planet.
What is absent from the narrative is that some of the apparent difficulties Heineken faces in Africa can also be surprisingly useful. Consider, for example, weak governments that fail to maintain roads and healthcare, obliging the company to find costly solutions – clearly an obstacle for business, one would think. But at the same time, lawlessness in many countries enables Heineken to sell and advertise its drinks without the hassle of regulation. Levels of education are often low, which can be a hindrance when looking for qualified personnel – but also a blessing in disguise when there is information to be spread about the supposed “positive” properties of beer.
In 2013, Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer described Africa as “the international business world’s best kept secret”. Heineken faces so little competition that in some African countries one small bottle of beer is no cheaper – or sometimes even more expensive – than in Europe, while production costs are lower. According to Heineken’s most recent available figures (2014), beer in Africa is almost 50% more profitable than anywhere else. Some markets, such as Nigeria, are among the most lucrative in the world.
“Don’t turn this into 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 indictment of Heineken specifically, but a study of the ways one multinational in Africa operates. As far as I have been able to determine, the Dutch beer brewer’s behaviour resembles that of its competitors and other western companies in many respects. My aim is to provide an accurate image of a company that likes to blow its own trumpet regarding its supposed African success story – a story for which it has been lavishly praised, both inside the Netherlands and on the international stage, at the UN general assembly.
In its code of conduct, Heineken describes its workers as “our greatest assets”. So what is working for Heineken in Africa really like? Not bad, at first sight. Across the continent, I have met former employees who look back with pride on their careers – no matter whether they were carrying crates or running the brewery. Most of Heineken’s staff members in Africa are on relatively low salaries by 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 manager whose first job was as a maintenance engineer. “But supervisors and higher staff are well paid, and when I started out there were many more managerial roles available, compared to other companies. If you do your work well, you get recognised and promoted.” For successful employees, there are also status-enhancing perks such as company cars or tablet devices. Employees also appreciate the wide range of training courses on offer.
For most of Heineken’s staff in Africa, there is no pension scheme, but at the end of their careers they are often entitled to a good severance package. Some use the money to start their own company. I found former employees who had started a fish farm, a consultancy business and a bakery. Others had stayed faithful to their old line of work and opened a bar.
A Heineken ad in an inner city area of Johannesburg in South Africa. Photograph: Alamy
One group of employees gets fussed over more than most: expats. Very often, the company maintains rent-free luxury villas on or near local Heineken premises, for expatriate staff. The number of African managers has risen across the continent as a whole, but in most countries white staff remain at the top of the pecking order. (At the time of writing, nine out of 13 African subsidiaries are headed by Europeans, and four by Africans.) According to Heineken’s 2014 annual report, entry-level employees at Nigerian Breweries got a little over $2,000 per year (£1,500), while the company spent the same amount every day on a Dutch director in Nigeria – not counting the bonuses.
Workplace safety is a serious concern for 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 as a result of amputations, burns and other incidents. According to a 2017 statement from Heineken, its African operations account for 26% of “on-site incidents and accidents (minor+serious+fatal)”.
In its operations across Africa, Heineken uses subcontractors and zero-hour workers increasingly often. In many countries, the income of a day labourer or a temporary worker does not amount to the “decent standard of living” that the company says is its goal. A cleaner in DRC cannot survive on a monthly salary of $40-50, and even a security guard who makes three times as much will find it hard to make ends meet. Moreover, external workers have no rights to healthcare or other services. In theory, it is the agencies that hire them that must provide these, but failure to do so does not tend to stop Heineken from working with them.
In Lubumbashi, a city in DRC, I met a temporary worker who told me he was not allowed to take a break. “When the directors leave for lunch, the staff just keep working,” he said. “We were supposed to get a canteen, but the budget for that has been cut. They don’t have the whip like they used to in colonial times, but the pressure of work is too much and bears no relation to our salaries.”
He said he laughs out loud at the slogan of Fondation Bralima, Heineken’s local charity: “Committed to the wellbeing of the Congolese.” His conclusion: “Let them start with the wellbeing of their own workers.”
If there is one group to whom the temp’s last words should apply, it is the “beer promotion girls”, young women who are hired to help boost sales in bars. In 2000, a group of aid organisations in Cambodia sounded the alarm about the risks promotion women faced in doing their job. They spoke of promotion women as being akin to “indirect sex workers” who earned very little and were often harassed, pressured into having sex with customers and ran the risk of contracting HIV.
Heineken set up an internal working group to tackle the problem in Asia. “It was difficult because these girls were not directly employed by us and turnover was large,” recalls former HR manager Hans Wesseling.
Katinka van Cranenburgh, a former Heineken executive, who took responsibility for the issue within HR, says it wasn’t until an important shareholder lodged a complaint that any significant action was taken. “Internally, we appealed to morality and the rights of women, but we saw that an angry letter from an investor yielded better results,” she says. Heineken issued a series of guidelines entitled Promotion Girls Policy: Selling Beer Safely. Henceforth, the young women would receive training, and the company promised to try to ensure better working conditions.
As early as 2003, according to internal documents, Heineken became aware that similar problems were occurring in Africa. A spokesman at the time commented in a Dutch daily: “It’s nothing special. It’s like the girls you used to see walking on the streets in the Netherlands, giving away free magazines for a private broadcaster and wearing a dress with its logo.”
Wesseling, who worked at Heineken from 1991 until 2005, says: “We had promotion girls in Africa. We knew this, in spite of internal denials. It was extra problematic because we had been running a very successful Aids policy in Africa.” From 2001, HIV-positive Heineken workers in Africa and their immediate families had been offered free therapy for life, which would continue after retirement or redundancy. Therapy always came with counselling, free condoms and HIV tests – and Heineken’s treatment of its workers won praise and admiration across the world, including among US politicians. “It gave our people in the US a great story,” said Wesseling. “So nobody was going to kill that image with African promotion girls having to sell our beer under the direst of circumstances. Better to frame that as a local custom: ‘That’s how they do things over there.’”
In 2007, an internal inquiry showed that Heineken was using about 15,000 promotion women globally, mostly in non-western countries. No fewer than 70 markets were considered risky for the promotion women because the work involved or could lead to sexual abuse, low pay or being forced to wear provocative uniforms. Sixteen of those markets were in Africa: circumstances were least favourable there, and Heineken was said to use almost 2,000 promotion women. According to internal documentation, only one African market was problem-free.
The person who Heineken chose to conduct this research was a 21-year-old intern, lending weight to the notion that the brewer did not consider this a subject of great importance. “I was a little taken aback that they asked me for such a delicate and important subject,” says the former intern, Diego Centurion.
Further research in DRC, the country where the most abuse was reported, revealed that unwanted advances came not only from customers but also from Heineken staff. “The enormous uncertainty of keeping a job combined with the absence of employee rights of legal status makes PW [promotion women] vulnerable for misuse from several stakeholders,” the internal report notes. Often, the women, who earned very little, had to sleep with managers if they wanted to keep their job. But if they needed to see a gynaecologist or get an abortion, which was often illegal and dangerous, they had to sort everything themselves, and pay for it. They also had to drink five to 10 large bottles of beer every working day, in order to persuade customers to consume more.
What did Bralima, the Congolese subsidiary of Heineken, get out of this in terms of extra sales? “I don’t think they were that valuable,” says a former director in DRC. “It was a mess. When this thing was going on in Cambodia, we also got rules, but they did not change a great deal. For a while, management hired taxis to get the girls home at night, but eventually they decided this was too expensive. Those girls were getting less than the minimum wage, and they were used by Bralima personnel. Very often these were girls with problems, very vulnerable. Given that we paid them so very little, they were virtually forced to go home with a man.”
Stefaan van der Borght, Heineken’s former director for global health affairs, says that at one point Heineken tried promotion boys: “We wanted to take away the association with sex, but it didn’t work. Another problem was that we used subcontractors, for reasons of flexibility. Sometimes you needed a lot of girls, for parties, and at other times it was quiet. So you were burdening these subcontractors with the workload and the social obligations, while Heineken was held accountable.”
Promotion women in DRC and Nigeria continue to work under the most dreadful conditions. “Every evening I am touched against my will. It doesn’t matter whether I work in an expensive cafe or a popular bar,” says Peace, a promotion girl in Lagos. Her colleague Sylvia adds: “We learn how to handle this. During 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 respond aggressively or say ‘stop’. By walking away, you let them know that it’s not appreciated,” says Peace.
But what if someone continues? Is there someone there, from the agency hiring the women, someone they can talk to? “Yes there is, sometimes, but often not,” she continues. “It is a public space, so there will be no rapes. That can only happen when the girls go with the customers. But that is a choice. Our employer thinks: if you don’t like being fondled, you must look for other work. I don’t even notice it any more. I anticipate it.”
The women’s incomes differ from one agency to another, and on average, at the time of this research, they earn about $8 per day. In an expensive city like Lagos, this is not much, but it tallies with other forms of unskilled work.
A lot of women take the risk of sleeping with the customers. Peace and Sylvia think that at least half of their colleagues are doing this. “These girls can’t support themselves and they are desperate. This is the way they earn much more money,” said Peace. And what do the employers think? Are they trying to prevent it?
“No, definitely not,” says Sylvia. “They like it when you act like this because it helps sales.”
Peace agrees: “They keep girls like that because they bring many customers.”
In Lagos alone, hundreds or possibly thousands of promotion women are used to sell Heineken brands. The situation in Nigeria is not exceptional. According to a well-connected source, there are at least 100 women active in Kinshasa, captial of DRC, and an unknown number in other Congolese cities.
Heineken’s Nigerian distribution centre. Photograph: Maarten Udema/Heineken
“Of course these girls are harassed, they are filles à tout faire (girls you can do anything with). It’s part of the profession,” says one 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 advantageous. 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 staff in Africa, being a woman is not always easy. According to a number of people I spoke to, across the continent, ambitious women sometimes have to get intimate with the HR manager – usually a local member of staff – to get a job or secure a promotion. Expats at management level know the rumours, but rarely consider it their priority to bring the issue to attention.
Wesseling, the former HR manager, says: “We knew that during the 1990s, things were happening in Congo that were beyond the pale. We had a very powerful HR manager who maintained a selection procedure that would not be accepted here. Women had to provide sexual services to get a job.” Heineken’s current CEO, Van Boxmeer, was general manager of Bralima from 1993 to 1996. But according to Wesseling, “he did not act when he was general manager there”.
Other insiders told stories of expat managers in Africa a handing out jobs to their girlfriends. The Rwandan girlfriend of a top manager in DRC became the fuel supplier for one of their breweries even though the previous one was cheaper and more reliable, according to those in the know. In Nigeria, an expat director gave secretarial jobs to two of his conquests, for which they were entirely unqualified, according to colleagues. And one national director allegedly asked for female staff he wanted for himself to first be sent to the medical department in order to have an Aids test.
When my book on Heineken was published in the Netherlands last year, the Dutch parliament passed a motion calling on the current minister for development and foreign trade, Sigrid Kaag, to get tough on abuses within or by Dutch business abroad. The abuse of promotion women had direct consequences for the company. The Global Fund, supported by Bill Gates, suspended cooperation with Heineken because of the scandal, and the Dutch ASN Bank, following a third inquiry, removed Heineken from its sustainable investment fund and has halted all other financial involvement with the company until further notice.
Heineken revised an earlier declaration in which it had claimed that the company employed just 200 promotion women in two countries in Africa. An internal inquiry now revealed an estimated 4,000 women in 13 countries. The company announced a series of measures: clear and unambiguous rules, training, dress codes, no alcohol on the job and transport home after work. These are, almost word-for-word, the same measures that were put in a policy paper in 2004, which remained an empty promise.
But this time, Heineken said, things really would be different. So, in March 2018, the company made a firm promise that reassured some politicians and stakeholders. “If we can’t guarantee good working conditions for our promoters in certain markets by the end of June, we’ll stop employing them there.”
In the summer of 2018, I went to Kenya to see for myself whether Heineken had kept its word this time. Was I even surprised? I met with six promotion women, who all told me the same stories: nothing had changed. They still had to accept sexual harassment as part of the job, their uniforms were so short it made them feel 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 selling beer successfully is a matter of psychology. It’s about image and an emotion. For many years, Heineken’s image has remained largely untroubled by the reality of its operations in Africa. “I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that here at Heineken we want to improve things and want to contribute positively to the societies where we operate,” one member of staff at Heineken’s head office in Amsterdam told me. “We try to stick to all the rules, however difficult that may be. I am hurt that this is trivialised with remarks that suggest it is all just commerce and marketing to us. It is very difficult to be an island of perfection in a sea of misery, but please, do not doubt our sincerity.”
Heineken as an “island of perfection”. And Africa, where Heineken has made billions in the past century? “A sea of misery.” But, of course, we should not doubt Heineken’s sincerity.