InBev has become embroiled in a row over workers rights in Eastern Europe amid union claims that it has broken labour laws in the state of Serbia-Montenegro.

The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) has accused InBev of breaking a 2002 agreement that protected the rights of union members at its Trebjesa brewery in Montenegro.

The IUF has also claimed that InBev - and its forerunner Interbrew - broke labour laws in Montenegro after refusing to re-employ the president of the union at the brewery.

The 2002 deal, signed in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, was struck between the IUF and Interbrew to end a bitter four-month dispute at Trebjesa over jobs and pay. Local unions had gone on a series of strikes in protest against what they saw as the brewing giant's refusal to honour a collective agreement on jobs and pay. Interbrew, the IUF has alleged, initially attempted to end the dispute by sacking 50 workers, including union president Bozidar Perovic.

However, the IUF has accused Interbrew, and then InBev, of failing to honour its commitments under the Dubrovnik deal. Under that agreement, the IUF has claimed, Interbrew agreed to end its dispute with workers at Trebjesa and to begin a round of pay talks. The brewer also agreed to protect union members from any possible sanctions over the series of strikes and end legal action against union leaders.

Nevertheless, the IUF has argued that InBev broke Montenegrin law by failing to reinstate Perovic. Montenegrin courts twice ruled that Perovic's dismissal was illegal but, the IUF has claimed, InBev has refused to reinstate him.

"Union rights and Montenegrin law are not taken seriously by a company that counts among the most important foreign investors in the country and therefore believes it can pick and choose which laws to comply with," the IUF said.

"Local management insisted that Perovic's previous position had been eliminated and his skills did not qualify him for any other assignment. Perovic has 34 years of experience at Interbrew and two 'best employee of the year awards'."

InBev made Perovic redundant last November and awarded him compensation of EUR19,185 (US$23,200), an amount he "refuses to accept as fair and just", the IUF said. Workers at Trebjesa are set to elect a union president in the coming weeks and InBev are putting pressure on employees not to re-elect Perovic, the IUF added."If Perovic is not re-elected, InBev will have demonstrated that it can flaunt international and Montenegrin labour law with impunity," the IUF said.

John Stacey, InBev's vice president for People in Central & Eastern Europe, told just-drinks yesterday (21 March) that the company had acted in accordance with national and international labour law. He also insisted that InBev had not discriminated against the strikers at Trebjesa when it laid off 47 employees at the end of 2002.

"In all circumstances, we fully comply with national and supranational legislations and, in some cases, exceed what is legally required in terms of information, consultation as well as indemnities to our people," Stacey said.

"Following the new systematisation in the (Trebjesa) brewery initiated in 2001, 47 employees from different educational backgrounds had to leave the company. Some of them were strikers, some others were not. We certify that, in no cases, participation in strike action has been used as a decisive or discriminating factor."

Stacey also insisted that its treatment of union president Perovic complied with a 2005 court ruling in Montenegro by reinstating him and awarding him back-pay from the date he was laid off. When Perovic was made redundant again last autumn, Stacey said it offered him a "severance package exceeding the collective labour agreement".