Garment factories are using COVID-19 to crackdown on trade unions

by Alysha Khambay | @alyshakhambay | Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
Monday, 10 August 2020 12:45 GMT

Garments workers shout slogans as they block a road demanding their due wages during the lockdown amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 15, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Factories appear to be using the pandemic as cover to attack workers' basic rights and clamp down on union activity

Alysha Khambay is a labour researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Millions of garment workers have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic as fashion brands have cancelled orders and delayed payments. This has had a devastating impact on garment workers around the world. Yet within this context, workers who belong to a trade union, and have organised for safer working conditions amid fears of infection, have been disproportionately targeted for dismissal.

Mounting evidence suggests that apparel factories are using the pandemic as a cover to attack workers’ freedom of association. And in response, instead of using their leverage with suppliers to protect the workers who make their clothes, fashion brands are demanding discounts to protect their bottom line.

A new Business & Human Rights Centre report highlights the phenomenon of union busting and unfair dismissals of garment workers during COVID-19, examining cases in nine garment factories in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, where nearly 5,000 unionised workers report being unfairly dismissed. These factories produce clothes for nine major global fashion brands: H&M, Primark, Zara (Inditex), Levi Strauss & Co., MANGO, BESTSELLER, Michael Kors, Tory Burch, and Kate Spade (Tapestry).

In seven of the cases the factories blamed COVID-19’s impact for the dismissals, but workers report unionised workers were unfairly targeted and in two of the factories made new hires of non-unionised workers shortly after.

In one case, workers were dismissed just hours after union representatives had requested factory management increase protections for workers against COVID-19 infection; and in another, workers were dismissed three days after registering a new union.

In six of the cases, dismissed workers continue to call for reinstatement and have been without income for almost three months.

Padma, a local union leader and garment worker dismissed from ECC-2, a factory in India, said: “I have sweated here for the past 10 years for 348 rupees ($4.60) a day. They wanted to get rid of the union for a long time, and now they’re using COVID-19 as an excuse.”

Analysis of the brands’ responses to these cases reveals a stark gap between their human rights policy commitments and the lived realities of the workers who make their clothes. Six brands responded by citing policy commitments to respect freedom of association and trade union rights. All six also said they are investigating or in dialogue with suppliers. Yet months later, most cases are still not resolved and the workers are left without jobs and wages.

In one of the more egregious cases, a young woman union leader was arrested in Cambodia and jailed for 55 days after posting on Facebook criticising the factory’s plans to dismiss union members during the pandemic. Three luxury brands that source from that factory - Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Kate Spade (Tapestry) – did not respond when asked about this shocking situation.

The nine cases included in this research are the tip of the iceberg. The ITUC has reported a global crackdown on trade unions, with at least 53 countries restricting human and labour rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. Further examples of union busting may not become apparent until the recall of laid-off workers, when factories could reopen and hire only non-unionised workers.

This does not bode well for garment workers’ rights. The lacklustre response from brands is leading to fears among unions that the industry will use the pandemic to reduce or even get rid of unionised workforces, and to intimidate workers from organising in the future.

Local unions report many other cases of dismissals targeting unionised workers during the pandemic, including in other sectors where there is less transparency and even weaker protections of basic worker rights. For example, there have been reports of unionised workers in BMW’s car manufacturing supply chain in Thailand and at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the Philippines being targeted for dismissal.

Workers in global supply chains are more vulnerable than ever as COVID-19 exacerbates existing inequalities and power dynamics. During the pandemic it is vital that workers are able to resist unsafe working conditions, unpaid wages and a lack of COVID-19 safety precautions. This is especially true when COVID-19 restrictions in many garment-producing countries have essentially hamstrung union organising. Without union leaders on the factory floor, workers are more vulnerable to exploitation and have little leverage to demand fair wage payment and decent working conditions.

It is imperative that fashion brands do not turn a blind eye to the workers that produce their clothes. They must take responsibility for workers by ensuring reports of violations are resolved swiftly and fairly, and engage directly and meaningfully with local unions and worker groups to support adequate resolutions. Brands must also overhaul their own business practices which undermine freedom of association and increase factories’ hostility to unions – for example, by paying prices that take into consideration the financial costs of labour and social compliance.

Beyond this, it has been proven time and time again for decades that voluntary policies by brands do not protect workers’ rights. As the industry response to union busting shows, legally binding standards with strict sanctions are required to prevent the exploitation of workers and repression of their fundamental rights.