The right to freedom of association and collective bargaining is “under attack” in more than a dozen Asian factories that make clothing for major brands and retailers such as Adidas, Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Hugo Boss, J.Crew, Mango, Next, Primark and Under Armour, denying garment workers a “crucial means” of improving their lot, according to an international labor-rights nonprofit’s new report.
The pandemic is partly to blame, researchers at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) said on Monday. Of the 124 union activists and labor advocates they interviewed in 13 factories across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, nearly two-thirds (61 percent) said freedom of association and collective bargaining have “gotten worse” since Covid-19 reared its head. Nearly half (48 percent) reported a spike in discrimination, intimidation, threats and harassment of union members.
With recession risks mounting across the globe, conditions could further deteriorate, with devastating consequences for garment workers—women most of all, said Natalie Swan, labor rights project manager at the BHRRC. Sans collective voice and protection, women workers face falling wages, heightened employment precarity, longer hours and increased abuse and harassment—some of it sexual in nature—on the production floor.
“The increased and ongoing suppression of trade union and collective bargaining rights since the pandemic is of major concern,” Swan said. “With a global economic crisis just around the corner, there is a very [big] risk [that the] suppression of trade union activities and silencing of union leaders will continue, increasing the devastating knock-on effect on other labor rights protections in factories, and ultimately increasing exploitation of garment workers.”
While many brands and retailers have committed to supporting freedom of association in their supply chains, a “huge gap” between policy and practices persists, the report noted. This disparity was thrown into focus during the pandemic, when even “better” firms that had previously engaged with unions and acted promptly in response to code-of-conduct violations suddenly “became unresponsive” to efforts to raise their concerns, union leaders told the BHRRC. This, the organization said, left many companies “complicit” in the restrictions on collective bargaining and the abuses that ensued.
Almost one-third (30 percent) of survey respondents, for instance, saw an uptick in gender-based violence and harassment as a result of quashed union rights, while more than half (58 percent) experienced a surge in wage and severance theft for the same reason. Over one-quarter (27 percent) of those polled reported an increase in violence against union leaders.
“Without the ability to organize and call for decent work and a living wage, workers are unable to improve working conditions or protect themselves from abuse,” Swan said. “These abuses were heightened during the pandemic and this hostility towards unions in garment supply chains could be at serious risk of long-term entrenchment with the bleak economic outlook.”
Many factories wield Covid-19 as an excuse to “hinder” union formation or activity, the report said. Some manufacturers that downsized because of the reduced orders used cancelations as “cover” to fire union leaders, it added. More than one-quarter (28 percent) of survey respondents reported an increase in targeted dismissals or forced resignations of union members since the pandemic, while 16 percent witnessed a rise in mass dismissals of workers at unionized factories. This early suppression, the BHRRC said, has now become the norm.
Responses from brands and retailers ran the gamut, though all pointed to their codes of conduct. Some referred to global framework agreements with organizations such as IndustriALL Global Union, which recently extended its pact with Zara owner Inditex to increase union involvement when promoting social dialogue. (The Spanish giant wasn’t mentioned in the report.)
“We reject the allegations,” an Adidas spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Throughout the pandemic, Adidas has been committed to fair labor practices, fair wages and safe working conditions throughout its global supply chain. We continued to source from our partners and committed to paying all orders, whether they were completed or in process. We continued to ensure legal compliance in terms of pay and benefits for all workers and tracked the working conditions in each and every factory.”
Other brands that denied statements made by the report included J.Crew, which said it has found no evidence for the allegations, and Next, which insisted that its “continuous communication” with workers’ councils hasn’t uncovered any failure to respect workers’ rights. A representative from Primark told Sourcing Journal that the discount chain has “no connection” to the factories named by the report but that it is in contact with “relevant parties regarding these claims and will investigate these as a matter of priority.”
Bestseller, meanwhile, said that it takes the report’s findings seriously and is committed to working with all stakeholders to “learn from the experience of the pandemic.” Hugo Boss said it will continue to “closely monitor” the effects of the “multiple measures” it has initiated, such as on-site training on freedom of association and collective bargaining, while Under Armour said it would be engaging with its suppliers to ensure that all code-of-conduct obligations are met. C&A invited workers and suppliers to tap into its grievance mechanisms to anonymously report issues. So did H&M, which affirmed that freedom of association and collective bargaining are “rights that enable decent work.” Mango did not respond to a request for comment.
For the BHRRC, it’s “clear” that voluntary approaches to due diligence have been ineffective. Despite being made aware of labor violations in their supply chains, brands and retailers have “failed to implement effective change,” the report said. As such, there is an “urgent” need for governments to enact mandatory legislation and for companies to sign enforceable agreements with unions. Not only can the latter happen more swiftly than the former, but it’s also in the brands and retailers’ best interest to address what is an “industry-wide problem” beyond the factories that were surveyed, it added.
“Brands have the power and leverage to make a difference,” Swan said. “It’s time they realize the repression of freedom of association is closely associated with increased labor abuse and exploitation—which is a bad look for their business. Alongside engaging closely with unions and worker groups to conduct meaningful due diligence, brands must also actively work with their suppliers to highlight the importance of enabling workers’ ability to freely organize. Without urgent brand action, these lower labor rights standards could become the new norm, rolling back decades of work championed by labor rights activists.”