One of H&M’s Indian suppliers is being forced to answer for its actions in firing unionized workers at the height of the Covid-19 crisis.
Eight months after Karnataka-based Gokaldas Exports relieved 1,257 mostly female garment workers of their duties to the global fast fashion titan, the factory has been compelled by their unions to reinstate all of their positions.
According to IndustriALL Global Union affiliate the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union (GATWU) and its federation, Unions United, which counts 900 of these workers as members, Gokaldas began removing machinery from one facility, dubbed ECC-2, in apparent preparation for closure at the end of May. While the company operates more than 20 production units, only ECC-2 housed unionized workers. By June 8, the facility had shut down and fired its entire workforce, flouting Indian federal labor laws.
Gokaldas justified the action by claiming that H&M, the factory’s main client, had cancelled its apparel orders. However, the Swedish fashion firm denied the allegation, saying that it had paid for all clothing produced.
According to IndustriALL and GATWU, the factory’s managers engaged in an “aggressive union-busting campaign” both before and after the shutdown, which included acts of intimidation like traveling to workers’ villages to push them to back down on their demands for unpaid wages. The workers launched a sit-in at the factory upon the announcement of its closure, which persisted for 50 days and ultimately forced Gokaldas into providing compensation.
The union initialized contact with the factory the day after the closure of ECC-2, reminding Gokaldas of IndustriALL’s global framework agreement with H&M that “guarantees freedom of association in the company’s supply chains.” According to the group, violations of these terms are monitored by a national committee, and Gokaldas refused to engage with this body during the conciliation process.
By early September, the widespread plight of apparel workers was playing out on the international stage. Western apparel brands, from H&M to Primark, Nike, Gap and more were pressed to honor the terms of their contracts with suppliers amid a rash of canceled orders that left workers’ livelihoods hanging in the balance. Amid the reckoning, H&M announced that it would cease ordering from Gokaldas altogether if the company did not honor the rights of workers to unionize.
Now, GATWU has finally reached a resolution with the manufacturer. On Feb. 1, Gokaldas signed a memorandum of understanding with the union stipulating that all workers who were employed when the factory shutdown occurred will be offered work if they apply before March 15. While ECC-2 will remain shuttered, two other factories have been selected to take on its former workforce.
What’s more, Gokaldas must now recognize the union as the sole bargaining agent in any factory where it has more than 20 percent membership for the next three years. “It was the determination of the union and its members, along with international solidarity, that ensured that an agreement like this—which has never been seen before—can be signed,” GATWU president Prathibha Ramanath said in a statement.
IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches called the resolution “a tremendous victory for GATWU against almost impossible odds.”
“Against a backdrop of a global pandemic that has resulted in economic carnage and lost jobs, GATWU won workers’ jobs back,” he added, along with a recognition agreement that it will use to expand its union coverage at the company.
The victory underscores the importance of global framework agreements with fashion players like H&M, he added. “Combined with a strong campaign on the ground and international solidarity, they provide the leverage that leads to victory,” Sanches said.