Textiles: is the pandemic setting back trade union rights in Asia?
In Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as well as in India and Indonesia, some suppliers of major clothing brands continue to invoke the health crisis to justify discrimination, threats and even violence when faced with their workers' desire for improvement, according to a report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. An NGO whose recent warnings about the situation of Burmese textile workers were recently relayed by the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency.
The latter has just published a 44-page report based on testimonies from 13 factories, collected from 24 union leaders and 124 union activists and labour advocates. According to the NGO, these manufacturers supply 15 major fashion brands, including Adidas, Asda, Benetton, Bestseller, C&A, Sainsbury's, Etam and H&M, as well as Hugo Boss, J.Crew, OVS, Mango, Next, Primark and Under Armour.
For 61% of those interviewed by the NGO, the possibilty of collective bargaining with textile companies has worsened since the beginning of the health crisis. Discrimination, intimidation, surveillance and even blacklisting of union workers have reportedly increased, as have discriminatory dismissals. "The emergency measures introduced by governments in response to the pandemic have exacerbated this suppression of trade union rights," said the BHRRC, referring to increased repression of strikes and industrial action.
More than a quarter of the professionals consulted report that the pandemic has been used as a reason to prevent the formation of unions by various means. And when these are formed despite everything, the pandemic is said to be used as a reason for refusing to recognise them officially. Covid-19 has also reportedly been widely used to suspend negotiations that had previously begun. Unions report that it is becoming more difficult for them to access production sites. Some companies reportedly use false accusations to have union members arrested, or call in "goons" to violently assault them.
While trade unions are kept out of the picture, workers are faced with wage theft or redundancy payments, according to 58% of respondents. This is a practice that the BHRRC warned about, specifically in the case of Burma's coup d'etat. An alert that was relayed by the ILO. Some 40% of the witnesses also mentioned security practices, particularly fire safety, which had regressed with the health crisis. Gender discrimination and violence, on the other hand, were reported to have increased among the thirteen factories observed for this report, which can be consulted on the BHRRC website.
In July, the BHRRC joined a consortium of NGOs to launch a European Citizens' Initiative to ensure that suppliers of clothing brands guarantee textile workers a "living wage". The coalition has given itself one year to collect at least one million signatures: a milestone that would allow it to refer the matter to the European Commission and impose a parliamentary debate.
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