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Press Release

14 Jun 2024

Apparel workers’ rights under threat in South and Southeast Asia amid pervasive trade union busting

International fashion brands are failing to fulfil commitments to freedom of association in South and Southeast Asia, new research revealed today (19 June 2024). The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) found brands and their suppliers are relying on ineffective representation structures as an alternative to union engagement – which undermines freedom of association and collective bargaining, leading to a significant impact on workers’ rights.

The report, Just For Show, examined the role of trade unions and alternative representative structures across six major garment-producing countries in South and Southeast Asia: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It revealed how these structures deplete trade unions’ ability to build their membership and represent workers, creating a vicious cycle of poor working conditions in the sector.

Alongside case studies from each country, the report also contains information based on interviews and focus groups with workers. Half (50%) of survey respondents said: “International brands say that they respect freedom of association but it’s just for show – they rarely intervene when there is an issue”.

In South and Southeast Asia, trade unions have been extremely successful in securing concrete advances for workers’ rights, including the establishment of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, as well as the subsequent Pakistan Accord, in the aftermath of the devastating 2013 Rana Plaza disaster. There have also been several workplace campaigns that have secured better terms and conditions at a factory level – once again driven by unions.

As the garment sector grapples with multiple crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate breakdown and global conflict, the need for brands to respect and foster genuine freedom of association along their supply chains has never been more urgent. The report provides key guidance for brands and their investors on how they can foster the capacity of independent trade unions, which are best positioned to facilitate the social dialogue needed to ensure decent working conditions and livelihoods for workers in their supply chains.

Natalie Swan, Labour Rights Programme Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “Workers across the globe have the right to be represented at work – and trade unions play a crucial role, acting as the primary agent for driving collective bargaining and social dialogue. The most effective way to protect and empower workers is still achieved through democratic trade unions and collective bargaining, especially where union leaders represent the diversity of the workforce. With the garment sector facing multiple, intersecting crises today, the role of trade unions has never been more important. As the industry adapts to accommodate the global fight against the climate crisis, trade unions must be bolstered and engaged if workers are not to be left behind.

“Despite this, international buyers and brands continue to promote the use of alternative structures over trade unions and their allies. This is a form of union busting – and a significant missed opportunity for brands who wish to develop meaningful stakeholder engagement and social dialogue with workers. This is essential as the global apparel sector navigates the new asks of mandatory human rights due diligence legislation, which requires true stakeholder engagement, and seeks to rise to the challenge of transitioning to a low carbon industry – which must be driven by worker perspectives and experience. Neither will be possible without the full and fair participation of workers who can exercise their rights to freedom of association and true collective bargaining.”

Embargoed copies of the report are available upon request.


Notes to editors: 

  • Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts of companies across the globe.
  • This research...
  • This report is based on research conducted by BHRRC between April 2023 and May 2024. Focus group discussions and interviews were held with trade union leaders and activists and other labour rights advocates from the six focus countries between October 2023 and March 2024.
  • BHRRC also conducted a survey of labour rights NGOs, factory-level trade unions, national trade union federations, and women and migrant worker organisations in the six countries between December 2023 and January 2024. The survey, designed by the BHRRC, was administered with the assistance of Clean Clothes Campaign’s global network.

Media contact: Priyanka Mogul, Senior Communications Officer (Media/PR), Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected]