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The global union confederation for the textile and garment industry, the ITGLWF,  represents workers in clothing manufacturing companies.

In the last fortnight they published a comprehensive report into the sportswear industry, surveying 83 factories in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia which collectively employ over 100,000 workers.

A range of shortcomings were documented. All of them are very concerning and I don’t want to gloss over any aspect, so I might unpack this report over a series of posts.

Victimising of union activists

The first problem found was that Freedom of Association is routinely suppressed by means of harassment, bribes, failure to renew short-term contracts and even factory closure.

The right to free association is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and also in Protocol 98 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which states:

all workers without distinction whatsoever, whether they are employed on a permanent basis, for a fixed term or as contract employees, should have the right to establish and join organisations of their own choosing.

Suffice to say, the ability of workers to combine interests and bargain for improved pay and working conditions hangs on the effective exercise of this right, so it is critically important in the economic development of these nations’ citizens.

Sri Lanka has ratified ILO Protocol 98. The researchers found that some companies circumvented this requirement by having the Employer Council (a non-representative body capable of being controlled by the employer) registered as a union. It therefore does not attract the usual due process protections. For example, there is no guarantee of secret ballots for representatives.

As a result union activists are – predictably – victimised and impeded in their work. If they are contract workers, which many are, they find their contracts are not renewed.

In Indonesia interference in union organising activities took a more straightforward form: organisers were denied access to office space, refused allocated time to participate in trade union activities and given unrealistically high production targets to prevent them having any time to carry out union duties.

In the Philippines, workers organising for their rights also faced employer reprisal. Employers also made use of ‘stacked’ employee representative committees. In one case a company resorted to closing a factory of 800 people instead of recognising their union – and is now facing court for doing so.

Overall, employer reprisal was the number one barrier to trade union organising, followed by use of legal red tape.

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