elektra, yasmine motarjemi and mona somm are not silent.
elektra whispers, she sings and screams. she demands revenge — in greek mythology, in sophocles, in hofmannsthal’s libretto. and even more so in the opera by richard strauss. her father was murdered. by her mother and her lover.
yasmine motarjemi has learned to stay calm. she is a food safety expert, first at the world health organization in geneva, then at the world’s largest food company in vevey, nestlé. she cannot afford to make any mistakes. especially not when she takes nestlé to court.
mona somm is a soprano, and elektra is her dream role. mona’s path is not easy: daughters from working-class families do not become opera singers. privileges, education and contacts determine who is on stage. mona writes to the head of the tyrolean festival in erl, austria, and he invites her to audition and hires her for elektra. after the premiere he carries mona onto the stage, the audience applauds.
a persian proverb says that even with a feather you can cut off a head.
when reporters cover yasmine, they usually pick up the baby cookies story. where children are at risk, attention is certain. toddlers in france had choked on nestlé cookies and were in danger of choking, parents complained. yasmine collects over 40 cases. the baby cookies should be taken off the market, she thinks. management refuses. a man stands in her way. he becomes her boss.
when he takes over the department, headwinds turn into bullying for her. her female employees are transferred, projects reassigned, her instructions blocked. colleagues avoid her. at some point, she is no longer invited to meetings. her internal complaint is first ignored, then fobbed off with a bogus investigation. in the organization chart, her name slides to those of the secretaries. at some point, the notice of termination is on the table.
mona’s boss is the founder of the erl festival, artistic director, director, conductor. backstage, he yells at mona, slurs and bullies her. some female employees are touched and kissed on the mouth. those who disagree will be humiliated or replaced or both. an austrian publicist reports on his blog about unequal pay, exploitation and accounting irregularities. tyrolean politics, the presidium of the festival and the public do not react.
at some point, mona has had enough. together with four colleagues, she writes an open letter. the artists testify to “unrestrained aggression,” “massive mental violence in the form of bullying, public exposure, humiliation and harassment.” they describe “abuse of power and sexual assault” in the workplace. denials follow, attacks, insinuations that it is about the wounded egos of female artists, not about systematic abuse of power. there are only a few bookings left for mona and her colleagues.
yasmine’s dispute with nestlé has dragged on for more than ten years. her career is over, her savings gone. alos friendships and lifetime. and has become the main unpaid occupation. nestlé would have offered her a handsome severance package if she had left quietly. her son says, “you can’t make deals with the devil.”
unlike many other countries, switzerland does not have a law that protects whistleblowers. switzerland has been tinkering with an amendment to labor law for 15 years. the last proposal fails in march 2020 by 147 votes to 42 in the national council.
the austrian equal treatment commission investigated the allegations made by mona and her colleagues. and found them credible — a symbolically important but not legally binding ruling. the public prosecutor’s office in tyrol discontinued the investigation in march of this year, stating: “in the end, no incident remained that would have been punishable, not barred by the statute of limitations and provable”.
yasmine nevertheless gets justice: three judges rule that she was bullied “in an underhanded way”. nestlé’s management knew about this, the judges note, but “neither took appropriate measures nor fulfilled its duty of care.” formally, it was about labor law; for yasmine, it was about food security. she does not want to come to terms with the matter until nestlé learns from what has happened and draws consequences.
speaking of diligence, the konzernverantwortungsinitiative (corporate responsibility initiative) wants companies like nestlé to be liable in switzerland if they fail to work diligently abroad and violate human rights or environmental standards there. a vote will be held on november 29, 2020.
and on elektra: her brother avenges the patricide and slays the mother and her lover. in her triumphant dance of joy, elektra collapses and dies.
Behind the research
The text was written in collaboration with Sylke Gruhnwald, Anna-Sophie Mahler and Julia Reichert. It is based on interviews with Yasmine Motarjemi and two open letters. One from Yasmine Motarjemi to the CEO of Nestlé, the second from Mona Somm and her colleagues to the president of the Tiroler Festspiele Erl. The team conducted interviews with family and friends of Yasmine Motarjemi, spoke with current and former Nestlé employees, read court decisions and was able to view confidential documents, interviewed activists and a lawyer, the public prosecutor’s office in Innsbruck and the Equal Treatment Commission in Vienna.
nestlé is the largest food company in the world. the company was founded in 1866 in vevey on lake geneva. in 2019, nestlé has 291,000 female employees in 187 countries. and they work for alete, kitkat, nespresso, henniez or san pellegrino, maggie, in total for about 2000 brands. and for more than one billion consumers per day.
profit: $12.7 billion
sales: $93.1 billion
market value: $304.1 billion
critics repeatedly expose abuses at nestlé: in the 1970s, a british aid organization publishes the study «the baby killer»; it is about nestlé’s advertising of baby milk powder in developing countries. later about too much sugar, child labor and human trafficking, the destruction of the rainforest and drinking water, expensively filled in plastic bottles. nestlé disagrees, signs voluntary food industry commitments, defends itself in court against activists.
tiroler festspiele erl
the festival was founded in 1997 in erl, austria, and opened a year later with richard wagner’s rheingold. the founder fills all the important positions: indendance, direction, conducting.
Founder of the Erl Festival, artistic director, director, conductor.
as of august 2018, there are close to 100 criminal cases against the festival. it is about illegal employment of foreigners, social contributions that were not paid, plagiarism. and around allegations of sexual harassment. the festival director is under investigation. he denies the allegations, but then resigns in october 2018. in march of this year, the investigation against him is dropped.
austrian publicist markus wilhelm reports on the “causa erl” onhis blog dietiwag.org. the former festival director is taking legal action against the research. however, he gives up at the end of october.
a single case against markus wilhelm is still pending. the president of the tyrolean festival, hans peter haselsteiner — who headed the austrian construction company strabag until 2013 — refuses to let go and continues to defend himself against the investigations.