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Press Release

11 Oct 2022

Crackdown on trade unions leads to increased worker exploitation in Asia’s garment sector

“Freedom to negotiate has been lost and collective bargaining with the factories has completely stalled as factories have used COVID as a tool to avoid negotiating with the union.” – Yang Sophorn, President of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) in Cambodia

The right to freedom of association and collective bargaining is under attack in major garment producing countries in Asia, according to new research. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre interviewed 24 trade union leaders and surveyed 124 union activists and labour advocates in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, with nearly two thirds (61%) of survey respondents reporting the situation for freedom of association and collective bargaining has ‘gotten worse’ since the pandemic. Almost half (48%) of respondents revealed an increase in discrimination, intimidation, threats and harassment of trade union members.

Allegations of union-busting and related abuse at 13 factories were revealed through the interviews for this report. These factories supply, or have recently supplied, at least 15 global fashion brands and retailers, including adidas, Asda, Benetton Group, BESTSELLER, C&A, Sainsbury’s, ETAM, H&M, HUGO BOSS, J.Crew, OVS SpA, Mango, Next, Primark and Under Armour. Despite making policy commitments to support freedom of association across their supply chains, with some even signing Global Framework Agreements with union federations, there remains a huge gap between policy and practice. This has left many fashion brands complicit in restrictions on freedom of association and resulting abuses.

Abuses included:

  • Almost a third (30%) of survey respondents reported an increase in gender-based violence and harassment as a result of the restrictions on trade union rights.
  • An increase in wage and severance theft as a result of trade union restrictions was reported by over half (58%) of survey respondents.
  • Over a quarter (27%) reported an increase in violence against trade union leaders.

It is clear voluntary approaches are failing; brands, despite being made aware of attacks on freedom of association and collective bargaining in their supply chains, have failed to implement effective change. There is an urgent need for governments to enact mandatory due diligence legislation and for brands to sign up to enforceable agreements with trade unions across their supply chain.

Natalie Swan, Labour Rights Project Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “The increased and ongoing suppression of trade union and collective bargaining rights since the pandemic is of major concern. With a global economic crisis just around the corner there is a very risk he suppression of trade union activities and silencing of union leaders will continue, increasing the devastating knock-on effect on other labour rights protections in factories, and ultimately increasing exploitation of garment workers. Without the ability to organise and call for decent work and a living wage, workers are unable to improve working conditions or protect themselves from abuse. 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.

“Brands have the power and leverage to make a difference. It’s time they realise the repression of freedom of association is closely associated with increased labour abuse and exploitation – which is a bad look for their business. Alongside engaging closely with unions and worker groups to conduct meaningful due diligence, brands must also actively work with their suppliers to highlight the importance of enabling workers’ ability to freely organise. Without urgent brand action, these lower labour rights standards could become the new norm, rolling back decades of work championed by labour rights activists.”

Anton, Joint Secretary of The Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) in Sri Lanka, said in the report: “Straight after COVID we are now in an economic crisis, we don’t even have electricity during blackouts and inflation for food is over 50%. The workers are struggling to survive, they don’t have time to engage with trade union activities. When we call training programs and meetings, attendance is very poor. They are too busy in the queue in the petrol station to get fuel. It’s having a very bad impact on trade unions.”

// ENDS

Read the report

We interviewed 24 trade union leaders and surveyed 124 union activists and labour advocates in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, with nearly two thirds (61%) of survey respondents reporting the situation for freedom of association and collective bargaining has “got worse” since the pandemic.

Note to editors:

  • The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts (positive and negative) of more than 10,000 companies across nearly 200 countries. We seek responses from companies when concerns are raised by civil society.
  • Media contact: Priyanka Mogul, Media Officer, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre ([email protected])
  • Download the full report here.