Labour Behind the Label

Trade Unions

‘The right to organise with others to fight for better working conditions is a universal human right: Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.’

– United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 23.4

Freedom of association gives workers the right to form and join representative organisations of their own choosing in the workplace to demand their rights. Collective bargaining is the right of workers to join trade unions without fear of discrimination, to have their union recognised as the representative of its members, and to have this union negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment on their behalf.

Trade unions are crucial for ensuring that workers achieve a living wage and decent working conditions. They offer the most effective and legitimate way to establish a fair deal for workers, by allowing them to stand together to defend their rights. This collaborative voice allows workers to express their views, which they may be too intimidated to do alone.

“There used to be a problem with our overtime pay – we weren’t being paid enough. But now [we are unionised] it is what it’s supposed to be. We can send money home to our parents now. This helps families.”  Garment worker in Indonesia

Only a small percentage of all garment workers are actually unionised, and many of these are in unions established by factory managements to please their clients (known as yellow unions). While workers across the world are fighting to gain their right to unionise, managers often respond by adopting “union-busting” tactics, which can include intimidation, abuse and violence. Workers have even been murdered for joining a union and demanding their rights.

Despite the fact that freedom of association and collective bargaining are protected as a constitutional right in many countries, some governments allow employers to mock this right. This turns the undermining of workers rights into a way of attracting foreign investment. For example, buyers often head to countries like China and Indonesia because these governments are well-known for their efforts of preventing unions from raising labour costs.

“"Workers are not allowed to form a union or any other organisation. Management has warned them that if anyone tries to organise workers and form a union they would be handed over to the police."

A factory worker from Bangladesh