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Fashioning a ‘just’ fashion industry

Fashioning a ‘just’ fashion industry

21 Jun 2024 | BY Sumudu Chamara

  • Int’l report focuses on essential need to incorporate the ‘silenced & oppressed’ voices of vital supply chain workers via collective & unionised bargaining 

The fashion industry is in flux. As it grapples with supply chain disruption, climate breakdown, geopolitical trade shifts, and the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, it must also prepare to comply with rapidly changing landscapes of human rights and environmental regulation and incentives in its major markets. 

This ranges from human rights and environmental due diligence related legislation to new import bans on goods produced with forced labour, climate legislation, and clothes waste based directives. 

Explaining this, a recent report on fashion industry workers’ rights highlighted that the fast fashion industry will only be successful in transforming if its redesign includes the genuine voice of the supply chain workers on which it relies. It stressed that the freedom of association is at the core of meaningful worker representation, genuine dialogue, and fair negotiation.

“Democratic and independent trade unions remain the most effective means for workers to challenge the unequal supply chain power dynamics that result in inadequate wages and poor working conditions. Yet, alternative mechanisms for worker engagement are too often promoted where unions could and should be fostered instead. Course correction is urgently needed, and without it, there is no foundation for the robust social dialogue and meaningful stakeholder engagement essential to fulfil fashion brands’ supply chain due diligence-related requirements and bring about a genuinely just transition to a fairer, greener industry,” the report said, adding that fashion brands, as well as factories, investors and policymakers in both producing and sourcing countries should play their part in breaking the vicious cycle of undermining genuine avenues for worker representation in the sector.

The report – titled ‘Just for Show: Worker Representation in Asia’s Garment Sector and the Role of Fashion Brands and Employers’ and issued by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre – paid attention to worker representation across six major garment producing countries in South and South-East Asia, namely Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Workers’ rights & powers in Sri Lanka

Explaining that union membership and engagement provide opportunities for training, education, and awareness raising that other structures do not, the report added that outlining the effectiveness of unions as a conduit for training and capacity building of workers, interviewees in Sri Lanka had expressed frustration that factories and their buyers often bypass the trade union in favour of worker committees to deliver trainings.

With regard to employers’ attempts to silence trade unions and workers in Sri Lanka, the report described: “The Women’s Centre, a non-Governmental organisation supporting female workers in Sri Lanka’s garment sector, outlined how factory management utilises a series of escalating tactics, including the use of alternative representative structures, to neutralise potential union activists and leaders. It highlighted the case of a female worker at a factory in Sri Lanka, who was increasingly involved in Women’s Centre based training and union activity at work from 2018. Verbal warnings and arbitrary transfers to other production lines were followed by an offer from the management to join the workplace employees’ council. After refusing this request and stressing her involvement with the Women’s Centre and factory trade union, the worker was subsequently fired and only rehired after the Women’s Centre intervened.”

Describing a case study in which a trade union, i.e. the Free Trade Zones and General Service Employees Union (FTZ & GSEU) improved conditions for workers at a private garment factory, the report said that the main takeaways for brands are that brands cannot expect workers in their supply chains to assert and defend their rights without supporting strong, independent, and democratic trade unions, and that companies with leverage can successfully apply pressure to factories to ensure that the freedom of association and the workers’ right to organise are protected, and that brands must support structures that build workers’ capacity and provide labour rights education for workers.

Based on another case study, in which an employee committee had been used to undermine trade union action at a private firm, several key takeaways were outlined for brands. They are that employee councils do not have the same legal mandate in Sri Lanka for collective bargaining as unions, and that where an employee council and independent trade union exist in a supplier factory, brands must ensure that its efforts to support worker representation are directed towards the trade union, and undertake active monitoring and due diligence to ensure that the said committee is fulfilling its limited function as defined in law, rather than overreaching its remit and acting as a substitute for the union.

Key findings concerning six countries

In its findings, the report said that weak and bogus representative structures are widespread in the South and South-East Asian garment sector, and that they mostly take the form of worker committees and/or ‘yellow’ (non-independent) unions. Claiming that usually, these are cosmetic in nature, or co-opted by management to work in their interests, rather than for the benefit of workers, the report said that often, they are set up by the management in direct response to and to stop workers’ efforts to organise.

Regarding the situation in the six countries, it was explained: “Alternative structures are privileged, while independent trade unions are punished. Employers ensure the dominance of alternative structures over independent trade unions by incentivising workers to join committees and yellow unions, and refusing to allow or negotiate with independent trade unions through pervasive union busting”. The report highlighted how support for alternative worker representative structures by both suppliers and brands is therefore itself a form a ‘trade union busting’.

Noting that independent trade unions achieve gains for workers that alternative structures cannot, the report explained that of particular value is the role that unions play in education and awareness raising among workers, alongside the concrete improvements in benefits and conditions that they drive. Workers are, as per the report, being short-changed by an absence of proper structures for collective bargaining in favour of the promotion of alternative structures.

Claiming that the promotion of alternative structures creates a vicious cycle that drains trade union capacity and resources, which in turn makes them less effective, the report further said: “Independent trade unions are required to spend valuable time fighting for legitimacy and competing on a sloping playing field, with weak alternatives that lack the mandate to make sustainable changes to the lives of workers. This means less time focused on the things that matter, from organising, collectivising, and representing workers’ needs at the factory level, to engaging with brands and suppliers on the fair solutions urgently needed to transform fast fashion. Brands are currently relying on alternative representative structures that allow for light touch worker engagement over actively contributing to an enabling environment for independent union structures and routes to achieve genuine dialogue. There are welcome advances in global framework agreements between some brands and trade unions, and limited binding agreements, such as the Bangladesh Accord and the Dindigul Agreement. But, in general, brands fail to actively support the work of independent trade unions in their supply chains.”

The report added that brands have a vital and enabling role to play as they navigate the worker representation landscape along their supply chains. Overall, the report had found that brands could and should do more, and when they do intervene in support of the freedom of association and independent trade unions, it makes a positive difference.

Future steps

The report put forward a number of recommendations to international fashion brands and policymakers, among other key groups such as supplier factories and investors.

It said that international fashion brands should strengthen supply chain transformation through workers’ freedom of association. Recommending to shift to active promotion and constructive engagement with trade unions in order to support successful supply chain transformation, workers’ rights, and shared prosperity, it further said that supply chain trade union representatives should be brought into the brand’s consideration of supply chain transformation.

The report recommended developing robust policies and to put them into practice: “Staying neutral when it comes to the freedom of association is not an option. Brands must show how they are moving beyond ‘ticking the box’ when it comes to worker engagement.”

“Negotiate global framework agreements and binding agreements for supply chains, and ensure that their principles are embedded throughout the business model, and especially purchasing departments. Instruct suppliers of time-bound demands for the freedom of association and collective bargaining in factories, and support dialogue and costs around the successful delivery of due diligence and net zero targets. Human rights related due diligence must be premised on the right to the freedom of association and meaningful engagement with workers along supply chains. This means undertaking stakeholder mapping along supply chains to identify trade unions and allied groups with which to engage, consulting workers and their representatives throughout the due diligence process, and ensuring that the right to the freedom of association is identified as a high risk priority in due diligence processes.”

For policymakers in buying countries, the report recommended to develop and implement mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence-related legislation that ensures meaningful stakeholder engagement at all stages, and highlights the freedom of association as a foundational and enabling labour right, alongside participatory approaches to due diligence that centre the expertise and voice of workers and their representatives. Mandating corporate reporting and transparency that allow workers, trade unions, and their allies along supply chains to access the information needed to participate in meaningful dialogue and negotiations with local suppliers and international buyers, was also recommended.

For policymakers in sourcing countries, the report recommended: “Develop and enforce legislation on the freedom of association aligned with international standards and good practices, ensuring an active role for independent trade unions at the workplace, sectoral and national level, including by providing sufficient resources to the relevant departments to ensure that the legislation is enforced. Undertake tripartite negotiation and consult social partners on legislation development and implementation, including independent trade unions and where appropriate, groups supporting hard to reach and vulnerable groups (such as women and migrant organisations).”

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