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Tue Mar 25, 2008 8:43am EDT
By Samuel Shen
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A labor union at Kraft Foods Inc's China unit charged on Tuesday that the company violated Chinese labor law by not adequately consulting workers about a relocation of its headquarters that threatens up to 340 jobs.
North America's biggest food maker, partly owned by Warren Buffett, has been in talks with workers since March 5 about plans to move its headquarters to Shanghai from Beijing, as the country's unions become increasingly assertive toward foreign employers regarding job security and wages.
"Kraft is seriously hurting the interests of Chinese employees," said union chairman Chen Baoqing, who is demanding that the company formally apologize for violating the law and that workers be given a voice in the relocation process.
A China representative for Kraft, which sells its namesake cheese, Maxwell House coffee and Oreo cookies, could not be reached for comment and repeated phone calls to the company were not returned.
Company spokeswoman Li Lingping told the weekly China Business News in a report last week that the company would offer jobs in Shanghai to half of its 250 non-sales staff in Beijing while the other half would be offered severance pay that is more generous than required by Chinese law.
Chen declined to discuss details of negotiations with the company, but said few of the workers in Beijing would be willing or able to move to Shanghai and would end up out of a job as a result of the relocation.
The dispute comes at a time of growing union activism at foreign companies operating in China.
McDonald's and Yum Brands Inc last year were accused by China's top union federation of breaching minimum wage laws in southern China's Guangdong province, where they were urged to let workers unionize.
Kraft announced its plans for the relocation on January 24, two months after it completed a 5.3 billion euro ($7.82 billion) acquisition of Groupe Danone's global biscuit business. Danone owned a biscuit unit in Shanghai employing 120 workers.
"We were dismayed at such an abrupt decision," said Chen, who has worked at Kraft China for 23 years. "We were all kept in the dark, and all of a sudden, we're losing our jobs."
Kraft's Beijing-based workers soon unionized and started to examine legal options for safeguarding their jobs.
According to China's new labor law, a company is required to consult with its staff before making any major decisions that may affect employee interests, Chen said.
(Editing by Edmund Klamann and David Cowell)
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