Union freedoms and collective bargaining crucial for labour rights

It is crucial for workers to be able to organise in unions in order to improve the often appalling working conditions in the global textile industry. Therefore, trade unions and their members repeatedly face repression by employers. This has been particularly visible since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, yet it is in situations of crisis like this that unions are particularly important in fighting for the measures necessary to protect workers.

All employees – regardless of gender, age, country of origin, legal status, employment status and location – have a right to decent and safe working conditions. This includes access to their basic right to freedom of association and collective bargaining and the ability to earn a living wage, which enables them to live in a dignified fashion. Collective organisation in trade unions enables employees to speak up with a shared voice vis-à-vis employers and to demand that their rights be respected or working conditions be improved. In numerous countries, working and trade union fights have led to legislation providing for humane working conditions. The relevant balance of power between the workers’ movement and employers also dictates the severity with which attacks on wage levels, working time arrangements or job security negatively impact employees. This right to freedom of association and collective bargaining is supported by the ILO core labour standards and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Oppression of trade unions

Nevertheless, it is often those empoloyees who jointly and autonomously advocated for better working conditions who come under most pressure from their employers. Making members of trade unions redundant or closing factories with effective trade unions are commonly used methods to suppress trade union activities, or even to make them impossible (‘union busting’).

 Employees who engage in trade unions were among the first to be let go during the Covid-19 crisis.

Trade unions are still often considered as irrelevant or disruptive by the globally active fashion industry. Instead of communicating with trade unions, many of these companies prefer to undertake commercial social audits to assess working conditions in their supply chains. Unfortunately, numerous accidents in factories – such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory or the Ali Enterprises factory fire – show that social audits provide no guarantees that health and safety measures are complied with in the workplace. Countries which are hostile towards trade unions are often among the favoured production locations of fashion companies.

In contrast, companies should be actively advocating for compliance with ILO core labour standards on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. A first step in this direction would be to take trade unions and employee representations seriously as partners and to actively promote dialogue within the industry – within companies and in the supply chain. Respecting trade union rights and strong trade unions should count as an important pre-requisite when companies select business and production partners, as well as commercial centres.

The Covid-19 crisis as a pretext for harsher repression of trade unions

Trade unions are particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic. They are needed to implement health and safety measures and prevent fatal implications of competition over the work that remains available. Yet some employers and governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to do the opposite – to curtail labour rights.

Attempts to hollow out labour laws are a sign of the fierce battle over working rights and conditions and the large-scale repression of trade unions in various producer countries are a reflection of this: in Myanmar, trade unions report that their members are the first to be let go when factories start to reduce staff numbers. There has been real competition between states in India over restrictions to workers’ rights. For instance, the government of Madhya Pradeshs (in central India) raised factory shifts from eight to 12 hours per day and at the same time announced a 50% reduction in inspections in companies. In Uttar Pradesh (in northern India) practically all labour protection laws have been suspended and in Rajasthan (in north-western India) working hours were increased, protection against dismissal was reduced and the number of members trade unions are required to have in order to register has bene doubled.

Johnson Yeung from the Clean Clothes Campaign network discusses the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on employees active in trade unions.
Assembled union workers © Clean Clothes Campaign

Successful trade union struggles

Management at the textile factory in Rui Ning in Myanmar appears to have used the Covid-19 crisis to make trade union members redundant. Under the pretext of Covid-19 protection measures, at the start of April 2020 its redundancies primarily included trade union members, causing suspicion of targeting union repression. Yet the trade union defended itself; after a bitter labour dispute and thanks to international actions of solidarity, it achieved an important success.

This success and further improvements of working conditions that trade unions had to fight for during the Covid-19 pandemic (such as higher short-time work remuneration, payment of outstanding wages or better measures to prevent infection in the workplace) are a clear indication of the necessary and valuable work of trade unions.

Together with our partners in the Clean Clothes Campaign, Public Eye advocates for factory owners to continue respecting textile employees’ rights during labour rights violations associated with Covid-19 and for them to respect trade union freedoms and the right to collective bargaining. We are engaging in urgent action and campaigns to actively support trade unions’ struggles in textile factories such as the trade union in Rui Ning.