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Asian apparel makers use Covid-19 crisis to crackdown on trade unions

  • Published at 04:14 pm August 5th, 2020
RMG factory
File Photo: A group of women working at a garment factory in Bangladesh Claudio Montesano Casillas

Cases of layoffs profiled in this report are the tip of the iceberg only

Nine Asian garment factories who supply clothes to major fashion brands, have sacked nearly 5,000 workers linked to alleged “union busting” and they are using Covid-19 as a cover to crackdown on trade unions, according to a survey.

On the other hand, the high street brands were also linked to “union busting” amid the Covid-19 crisis, as thousands of garment workers were sacked after asserting their rights.   

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) in its survey titled “Union Busting and Unfair Dismissals: Garment Workers during Covid-19” unveiled the findings on Wednesday.

From March to July of this year, BHRRC looked at nine cases in garment factories in India,Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar who supply nine global fashion brands including H&M, Primark, Zara, Levi Strauss & Co, MANGO, BESTSELLER, Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Kate Spade.  

Of the nine brands mentioned in this report, three – H&M, Inditex (Zara) and Levi Strauss & Co committed paying suppliers for all in-production and completed orders.

“Millions of garment workers have lost their jobs as fashion brands have cancelled orders and delayed payments during the pandemic. Yet workers who belong to a union and have organized for safer working conditions amid fear of infection have been targeted for dismissal, BHRRC said.

“Garment factories supplying major fashion brands are using Covid-19 as a cover to crackdown on trade unions. More than 4,870 unionized garment workers have been targeted for dismissal by nine factories supplying for major fashion brands,” the report findings showed.

In one case, 900 union workers were affected in India, while 846 and 3,000 union workers have been affected in Myanmar and Bangladesh, respectively. In Cambodia, 4 union workers were affected in two cases.  

“We laid off workers as there were shortages of work orders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But it has been done in line with the laws of the land,” Mesbah Uddin Khan, managing director of Windy Group said while speaking with Dhaka Tribune.

There were trade unions in the factories and we have settled down the payment in consultation with the trade union leaders, Mesbah said.   

On the other hand, payments of workers have been done through mobile banking and as per the lay off rules, he added.

As per the report, in three cases, a total of 3,000 workers of Windy Group were affected.

Dhaka Tribune tried calling Nazma Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, on her cell phone for her comment on the matter, but she was unreachable.

The affected trade unions of the factories are affiliated with Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.  

“There was no incident of sacking factory workers in connection with the trade union. Workers were laid off due to work order shortage and the owners paid the workers more than they were supposed to get as per the law,” Nahidul Hasan Noyon, general secretary of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation told this correspondent.

Even the owners of Saybolt Tex, a sister concern of Windy Group, extended the layoff period on request to wait a few days for work orders, Nahidul added.    

There were 1,300 workers in the factory and they got paid, and the owners promised to reappoint them if any opportunities became available in other units of the group, he added. 

In Saybolt Tex, the trade union was affiliated with Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.

In seven out of nine cases, suppliers blamed Covid-19 impact for the dismissals, but workers said union members are being targeted, the report added.

However, suppliers also cited reduced orders and economic impacts of Covid-19 as the reason for the dismissals, while the workers said they have been disproportionately targeted due to union membership and organizing.

Analysis of brand responses revealed a stark gap between human rights policy and practice.

As per the report findings, six brands responded to cases of “union busting” in their supply chain by citing policy commitments to respect freedom of association and trade union rights.

All six brands also said they are investigating or are in dialogue with suppliers, yet months later, most cases remain unresolved. The rest of the three brands did not make any comment.

“Covid-19 has already been used as an excuse by fashion brands to act against the interests of the most vulnerable workers by cancelling orders and leaving suppliers in the lurch.”

“Now workers face a brutal crackdown when exercising their most fundamental rights and brands are not stepping up enough to ensure workers in their supply chains are protected,” Thulsi Narayanasamy, senior labour rights lead at BHRRC, said.

“Workers in the global supply chain are more vulnerable than ever as Covid-19 exacerbates existing inequalities and power dynamics.

“Threatening the right to organize collectively and be part of a trade union at such a critical time is akin to cutting garment workers off at the knees. 

“It attacks a key source of collective power and effectively stops them from being able to ensure they are paid their wages, and are safe at work and free from harassment,” Narayanasamy further said.

“These threats send a powerful message to other workers on the real cost of exercising their fundamental freedoms, he added. ” 

Fashion brands are aware that this is happening, and they must step up and take responsibility for workers’ by ensuring that these cases are resolved swiftly and fairly, and by changing their own practices that enable union suppression in the supply chain, the labour rights leader said.

“Brands can do more than just make policy commitments to rights and now is the time to ensure workers and unions that they are directly and meaningfully engaged and their voices are taken seriously,” he added.

Cases where workers get laid off

A supplier in India who makes clothes for H&M sacked all 1,200 garment workers at a unionized factory in June, citing lack of orders amid Covid-19.

But that supplier’s 20 other units are open and remain functioning. Workers and unions claimed that the closed factory which the supplier shut down was the only one with unions and was targeted for this reason. 

Three factories owned by the Windy Group in Bangladesh, which supplies garments to Inditex and H&M, sacked 3,000 workers. The workers said the dismissals are linked to their union activism.

Around 107 garment workers in Myanmar making clothes for Inditex, Bestseller and Primark, were sacked three days after they registered with a new union.

Soy Sros, a factory worker, was making handbags for Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Kate Spade in Cambodia when she was arrested and jailed for 55 days over a Facebook post criticizing the factory’s plans to sack union members, including a pregnant woman. Three brands ---Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Tapestry did not respond on the matter. 

Among the nine factory cases featured in this report, seven cited reductions in orders or economic impacts due to Covid-19 as the reason for the mass layoffs.

However, in all seven cases workers reported that the layoffs disproportionately targeted unionized workers, and in two cases workers reported that the factories made new hires of non-unionized workers shortly after.

Cases profiled in this report are just the tip of the iceberg. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has reported a global crackdown on trade unions, with at least 53 countries restricting human and labour rights during the Covid-19 pandemic and local unions reported many other cases also. 

Key observance

Through the analysis of the content of brands’ responses and rejoinders from the worker groups concerned, the BHRRC observed the below approaches by companies.

The observance includes non-engagement, engagement with the issue, with limited transparency or accountability, gap between company commitment to freedom of association and implementation in factories, difference to local labour laws that fall short of international standards and non-transparent dialogue with suppliers often without meaningful engagement with unions or workers.

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