2020 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate – Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi
Despite its dominance as the world’s largest food and beverage company, Nestlé has nonetheless had a staggering number of controversies over its business practices. Child labor, unethical promotion, manipulating uneducated mothers, pollution, price fixing, and mislabeling are just a few of the many issues that have plagued Nestlé over the years. Dr. Yasmine Motajemi importantly has now added food safety and harassment of whistleblowers to that list.
Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi
Prior to joining Nestlé in 2000 as Assistant VP responsible for global food safety, Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi, an Iranian born triple-national of Iran, Switzerland, and Sweden, was a renowned senior scientist and Acting Director in the World Health Organization in the field of food safety. Little did she know then that 20 years later, Dr. Motarjemi would be fighting Nestlé, both in court and in the media, in a battle over food safety, public health and human rights. Dr. Motarjemi never intended to become a whistleblower, but in her words “Nestlé did so much wrong, that [she] felt [she] had no choice.” Dr. Motarjemi counts among the worst things that Nestlé management did was to refuse to pay attention to her internal reporting and avoid the preventable incidents that followed. About this situation, Dr. Motarjemi has noted “[t]o err is human, to persist in error is diabolical.”
Food safety whistleblowing, harassment and dismissal
The opening salvo in this battle was Dr. Motarjemi’s internal whistleblowing report that Nestlé mismanagement had ultimately contributed to food safety incidents, such as the 2009 E. coli O 157 outbreak in the United States and the 2008 melamine intoxication in China reputedly resulting in the poisoning of some 300,000 infants, many of whom are believed to have died. Dr. Motarjemi repeatedly raised internal concerns that Nestlé was in a position to prevent these and other incidents but had failed to do so, and that without significant internal change, another incident was around the corner. As an example of other concerns she raised internally, Dr. Motarjemi notes that in 2003 she raised the alarm when she learned that the Director of Quality Management at Nestlé France had allowed defective biscuits to remain on the market for several years despite reports of choking of infants (each year, some 40 cases were formally reported to Nestlé, although Dr. Motarjemi has noted there is reason to believe that there were, in fact, many more incidents). According to Dr. Motarjemi, the same type of problem, but with a different Nestlé product, caused injury and death to several infants.
Despite exhausting all internal whistleblowing channels and raising the alarm multiple times, Dr. Motarjemi and her alerts were ignored. Instead, as alleged in her 2011 lawsuit and 2017 public letter to Nestlé’s CEO, Dr. Motarjemi was met with psychological harassment by Nestlé food safety department management and others for her efforts to bring food safety issues forward, at a time when Nestlé management had decided to link managers’ bonuses to product recalls, further dissuading managers from recalling contaminated products and alienating those who defended food safety.
Dr. Motarjemi notes that after three years of harassment and management turning a blind eye, she was “offered” a position in the Nestlé Research Centre – a job that the Swiss Court of Justice recently described in its January 2020 judgment in Dr. Motarjemi’s favor in her Nestlé lawsuit as a “thankless task.” Dr Motarjemi countered the offer, noting she would only take on the role if the food safety department performed a food safety audit, which hitherto had not taken place for ten years, Dr. Motarjemi said. Again, this request and the one to meet with Paul Bulcke, the former CEO, fell on deaf ears. Finally, Dr. Motarjemi found herself removed from Nestlé’s organizational chart, and abruptly and unceremoniously dismissed. Dr Motarjemi covers the above in more detail in her March 2017 open letter to the current Nestlé CEO, Mr Ulf Mark Schneider, which has gone unanswered.
Swiss Court Battle
Following her dismissal, Dr. Motarjemi reported the incidents to public health authorities, NGOs, Unions, and her professional community. With a few exceptions, she received very little help or interest, which she attributed to people being afraid of Nestlé, noting that “society has been taken hostage by fear.”
With few other options remaining, in March 2011, Dr. Motarjemi ended up taking legal action in the Swiss Courts for her individual claims of unfair dismissal and harassment relating to her internal whistleblowing. Dr. Motarjemi’s lawsuit was met with a counterclaim by Nestlé for allegedly violating professional secrecy.
In January 2020, after a close to 10-year legal battle, the Swiss appeal court overturned a first instance decision from 2018 and in a strongly worded judgment ruled that:
- Motarjemi had been unlawfully harassed and forced out of her job, noting “the underhanded nature of the harassment had considerable impact on the plaintiff, as can be seen by the current state of her health; what’s more, it has obviously destroyed her professionally … stopping her from a brilliant career.”
- Nestlé management took no adequate measures to protect Dr. Motarjemi or stop the harassment despite the seriousness of the situation and her numerous internal complaints between 2006 and 2010, failing to fulfil its duties of care and diligence towards Dr. Motarjemi and describing Nestlé’s belated and biased investigation three and a half years after the harassment started as a “sham.”
It is for Dr. Motarjemi’s courage in speaking out against food safety violations, which are a threat to the interests of communities worldwide, and her tenacity and stamina in achieving this historic judgment in the Swiss courts in January 2020 that we proudly nominate her as a candidate for Constantine Cannon’s 2020 Whistleblower of the Year.
For her efforts, Dr. Motarjemi has been awarded the GUE/NGL Award for Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right of Information, and her whistleblower story has been dramatized in a new play by the Zurich Theatre and is the subject of a 2017 whistleblower song by Axl Hair.
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- Vote Soon for the 2020 Whistleblower of the Year