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Garment Worker Unions Need ‘New Tactics and Strategies’

As freedom of association in the garment supply chain experiences fresh strains, one of the world’s largest union federations has issued a handbook to help affiliates more strategically organize and remedy unfair practices.

“Unions all over the world struggle to defend workers’ rights amid unprecedented
employer opposition to unionism and complicated global supply chains,” wrote IndustriALL Global Union in “Building Union Power.” “When circumstances change, unions need new tactics and strategies for organizing and bargaining with employers.”

This includes what the organization dubs strategic corporate research: a tool, based on a framework developed by sociologist Tom Juravich, to craft strategic campaigns in order to bring employers and buyers to the negotiation table while using knowledge to “build workers’ power.” More than information gathering, or “digging up dirt,” strategic corporate research creates a better understanding of the power flows in companies, including vulnerabilities, potential leverage points, risks and opportunities in engaging a target company.

The model IndustriALL provides comprises 24 “boxes,” each representing areas that should be explored in any corporate profile, such as income statements, workforce demographics, management structure, customer profiles and regulatory or legal jurisdiction. Resources to glean this information include worker unions, NGOs and national labor law experts, along with public databases such as the Open Supply Hub (previously the Open Apparel Registry) and the International Labour Organization’s Better Work transparency portal.

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Tracking this information is important. “The textile and garment sector is highly globalized with millions of employees worldwide,” IndustriALL said. “It operates mainly through a buyer-driven supply chain where the sourcing brands and buying agencies hold power over their suppliers, who are the direct employers of the workers, making it difficult to track the complex supply chains.”

The operational level of a firm can also provide a number of opportunities for bargaining.

“It is important to identify suppliers of goods or services. Are there more than one? Is there more than one source for the same supplies?” IndustriALL said. “Following the supply chain has been instrumental for the global garment industry. How those goods or services are transported and the utilities used may also provide important sources of leverage.”

Lenders can be another important pressure point, particularly in the case of leveraged buyouts, or where the company is highly indebted, since lenders in those situations can play a stronger role than upper management.

But corporate research is only the first step of a strategic campaign, IndustriALL said. Following that, workers can prepare factsheets based on their analyses, which they can then in turn use to appeal for justice when unfair labor practices arise or call for union recognition. To amplify their cause, they can prepare campaign leaflets and turn to the media, both traditional and social.

“It is important to determine whether there is a larger parent company or, in some cases, a series of parent companies and the role the immediate and/or ultimate parent company plays in operations, decision making and control,” IndustriALL said. “In some instances, the parent plays little or no role; in others the parent may have placed a majority of the board. It is important to identify any subsidiaries and their relationships to the target company.”

The guide dives into detail on how to successfully piece together these documents. Campaign leaflets, for example, need an “attention-grabbing headline,” a catchy graphic and a short description of the problem that names the direct target. A media release requires a headline, concise facts that avoid jargon, quotes from workers and contact information.

Building networks, too, is key to a campaign strategy, IndustriALL said. “After the strategic research, a union/solidarity network across the targeted company’s supply chain must be built,” it said. “Use all assistance possible from IndstriALL head office in Geneva, IndustriALL’s regional offices, local federations, etc.”

The handbook is available to download on the IndustriALL website and is available in English, as well as Arabic, Bangla, Bahasa, Khmer, Portuguese, Spanish and Vietnamese.

It arrives after an October study found that the right for garment workers to organize is increasingly “under attack,” with the pandemic partly to blame.

Of the 124 union activists and labor advocates that the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) interviewed in more than a dozen 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 the start of Covid-19. Nearly half (48 percent) reported an increase in discrimination, intimidation, threats and harassment of union members.

With a global economic crisis “just around the corner,” there is a “real risk” that the suppression of union activities will continue, with devastating consequences on all forms of labor rights protections, Natalie Swan, labor rights project manager at the BHRRC, said at the time.

“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. “We have seen an increase in wage and severance theft, worsening health and safety standards, increased gender discrimination and concerning levels of gender-based violence and harassment. 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.”