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H&M Reiterates Supplier Commitments—But What it Isn’t Saying Speaks Volumes, Too

H&M and IndustriALL Global Union have released a statement jointly reaffirming their commitment to work directly with suppliers to support the economic and social recovery of the pandemic-battered global garment sector and “build back a more resilient industry” in accordance with the International Labour Organization’s Call to Action.

“The importance of meaningful and close collaboration between companies and trade unions has become even more evident during the pandemic,” Yosef El Natour, head of production at H&M, said in a statement. “Only by joining forces—in particular at the factory floor—we can efficiently use our combined leverage and expertise to tackle challenges when it comes to safeguarding workers’ fundamental rights in the wake of Covid-19.”

The agreement includes a desire to strengthen freedom of association and collective bargaining rights along the Swedish retailer’s supply chain and promote social dialogue at all levels as the “main way to solve conflicts.”

H&M says it will continue to uphold responsible purchasing practices by maintaining stable orders, fulfilling agreed-upon payment terms and “fostering conditions” that allow suppliers to honor payments to workers while preserving the level of employment and income amid a landscape rife with wage theft and union-busting layoffs.

“Manufacturing suppliers need stability and predictability to preserve the conditions for employment and income; that is the kind of commitment this joint statement brings,” said Valter Sanches, general secretary at IndustriALL. “We are working together to help the industry develop [the] strength to recover from the crisis, save jobs and preserve the rights and income of workers.”

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At the same time, the apparel giant will require all direct suppliers and their subcontractors to implement “necessary special protective measures” and supply any essential protective equipment. Meanwhile, both H&M and IndustriALL will work jointly with government and business organizations to “promote their engagement.”

“This joint declaration confirms H&M’s genuine engagement to continue and reinforce our close cooperation based on the global framework agreement,” said Marie Nilsson, president of Swedish union IF Metall, a co-signatory of the agreement. “There are challenges ahead, but improved working conditions and a sustainable garment industry can only be achieved through cooperation.”

The agreement has omissions that labor groups are bound to take issue with, however. There is no mention of working toward living wages—a perennial source of contention between H&M and activists—for instance. Nor did the retailer directly address the sector’s climate of sexual abuse and violence that recently led to the death of a young woman who worked at one of its suppliers in India. Since the murder of Jeyasre Kathirave, 25 of her female colleagues have filed complaints to the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union of sexual assault, harassment and verbal abuse by male supervisors and managers at Natchi Apparels, which is owned by Eastman Exports, India’s fourth-largest garment export company.

“We do not tolerate harassment of any kind, and suppliers that do not share these values cannot and will not be part of our supply chain,” an H&M spokesperson told Sourcing Journal in February, a month after the killing. “We are therefore in close contact with the supplier and have set some immediate and urgent actions that we expect them to complete in order to demonstrate how they can guarantee a workplace free from harassment.”

Health implications for garment workers

The rollout of H&M and IndustriALL’s agreement follows a study that found that garment workers at factories in Bangladesh that are not compliant with international occupational safety and health (OSH) standards are more likely to suffer from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), one of the most common occupational diseases responsible for work restriction and absenteeism.

The one-month prevalence of any MSD, such as lower back pain, knee pain or neck pain, among female garment workers was 57 percent, according to the study, which was submitted by Bangladeshi and Thai researchers and published in the peer-reviewed journal Risk Management and Healthcare Policy on Tuesday. Working in OSH-compliant factories, however, appeared to act as a “protective factor” for developing MSDs. Employees with regular eight-hour workdays, a feature of compliant factories, were also less likely to complain of MSDs, researchers found.

“Workers often work for extended hours in awkward postures doing repetitive work on machines with vibration, while the compliant factories strictly maintain regular working hours with health examination and OSH safety measures,” the study noted. “These factors may contribute to the difference between the compliant and non-compliant factory in terms of the development of MSDs among the female workers.”