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Inditex Pledges New Protections for Global Garment Workers Amid Union-Busting Scrutiny

Following upheaval and volatility earlier this year, Inditex, owner of fast-fashion giant Zara, has teamed with an international workers’ union on a new initiative to support the garment industry’s recovery.

The fashion firm, along with IndustriALL Global Union, has announced an agreement to protect workers in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia and Turkey, all of which were impacted by coronavirus-induced supply chain disruptions this spring.

On Tuesday, Inditex and the workers’ rights union signed a joint declaration in Arteixo, Spain, and Geneva to commit to providing stable payment terms and financing to support cash flow to these suppliers, which have been ravaged by cancelled orders leading to large-scale job losses and furloughs.

According to a statement from both organizations, the agreement builds on their longstanding partnership and will help protect workers’ livelihoods through a handful of new measures.

Inditex, along with contemporaries like H&M Group, faced scrutiny this March when production on in-progress orders stalled, leaving supply chain partners unsure about when—and whether—they would be paid for their work.

In April, Inditex told Sourcing Journal that it was committed to working with its Bangladesh suppliers through the impacts of COVID-19, and would fulfill its responsibilities by ensuring that all orders that were already produced, or were currently in production, would be paid off completely under the terms of their original contracts.

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The new agreement augments an existing global framework crafted by the two organizations in 2007, and renewed in 2019, with a pledge to respect workers’ collective bargaining rights and freedom of association, giving them the right to join unions to advance their own interests. It also commits both Inditex and IndustriALL Global Union to working more closely with governments and business organizations in sourcing countries.

Workplace safety will also be ensured, with Inditex and the global union committee now committed to monitoring the implementation of protection measures and providing PPE to workers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic caused a crisis in the textile and garment industry that led unions to experience mass job losses, unsafe working conditions and attacks on workers’ rights,” IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches said, adding that many of the union’s members have seen the total collapse of their financial security during this time.

“The manufacturing suppliers need stability and predictability so that employment and income can be preserved,” he added. “We are working together to help the industry to develop the resilience to recover from the crisis, saving jobs and preserving the rights and income of workers.”

The agreement was signed by Inditex executive chairman Pablo Isla, who noted that the firm’s longstanding work with IndustriALL over the past 13 years has lent to the strength of the new framework agreement, making it “a strong tool to keep working to protect and promote workers’ rights and wellbeing, while supporting the global garment industry during these unprecedented times.”

Isla said Inditex’s priority through the crisis continues to be the health and safety of its employees, workers in its supply chains, and its customers.

While the company is putting its best face forward publicly, a new Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) report claims that garment factories supplying the world’s largest fashion brands—including Zara—have been using the COVID-19 crisis as a cover in cracking down on trade unions.

According to BHRRC, 4,870 unionized garment workers have reported being targeted for dismissal by nine different factories serving fast-fashion and luxury players. While suppliers have unilaterally cited the disruptions caused by the coronavirus crisis as the reason for the firings, workers believe they’ve been targeted due to their union relationships and efforts to organize in defense of their rights.

From March through July, BHRRC sought responses from nine brands, including H&M, Primark, Inditex, Levi Strauss and Co., Mango, Bestseller, Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Kate Spade. The group sought to force the brands to address the charges that they were using the pandemic as a red herring for laying off thousands of unionized workers in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia.

BHRRC said its analysis of brands’ responses to the widespread allegations reveals discrepancies between their stated human rights policies and their actual practices.

Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Tapestry did not respond to allegations that a worker at one of their factories, Superl Cambodia Ltd., was jailed in April for 55 days after speaking out about the supplier’s plans to lay off unionized workers.

Some brands, like H&M, Inditex and Levi Strauss and Co., have emerged on top when it comes to public perception because of their promises to honor payments to suppliers amid store shutdowns and reduced consumer demand. However, BHRRC said, these three companies have also been linked to allegations of union busting.

For example, in June, 3,000 garment workers were terminated by three of the Windy Group’s unionized factories in Gazipur and Dhaka, Bangladesh, which supply both H&M and Inditex. The union workers from those three facilities claimed that each time a worker attempted to unionize, they were dismissed. Terminating workers in such vast numbers has effectively neutralized the unions at those factories, said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) in Bangladesh.

According to Amin, the dismissed workers staged hunger strikes and protests at the factories, calling for reinstatement. The brands claimed that an agreement had been reached by the factories and the unions, and that workers were compensated for their work through digital payments early in the month. But as late as June 21, hunger strikes persisted at the factory locations, and calls for the Windy Group to rehire the workers continued.

Six brands that were the targets of BHRRC outreach, including H&M, Inditex, Bestseller, Primark, Mango and Levi Strauss and Co. confirmed they were aware of the allegations that workers had been laid off unfairly, and were making inquiries with their supply chain partners about their veracity. The level of transparency in their responses varied, the group said.

Five of the brands (H&M, Inditex, Bestseller, Primark and Levi Strauss & Co.) touted their commitments to freedom of association when responding to BHRRC. Primark told the group that its code of conduct “clearly states that all workers have the right to join or form trade unions of their own choosing and to bargain collectively,” adding that the current pandemic has not altered that pledge.

A few brands also pointed to their compliance with local labor laws in their defense. Inditex, H&M and Bestseller all said that any dismissals that happened at their partner factories happened in accordance with local laws. BHRRC argued that in many cases, these laws fall short of international standards for the ethical treatment of workers.