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Labour Behind the Label is now 20 years old. As a small but mighty campaigning group, we’ve achieved a lot in our short history. By standing alongside the workers who make our clothes and their organisations around the world, to call for better conditions, wages and workers’ rights, we have always made sure that their demands are at the centre of our campaigns. And we’ve had many successes! The model of linking up consumers and activists in countries where brands are head quartered, with workers making our clothes, to amplify their needs and demands really works. Here are 20 moments that mark our 20 years calling for change. 

1. Mind the Gap is Labour Behind the Label’s first campaign win (2001)

A panorama documentary in 2000 exposed footage of GAP clothes being produced in Cambodian factories employing children under 15. Labour Behind the Label used this media moment to pressure GAP around a case in Saipan, called United International Garment Corp. Members wrote letters to GAP and held UK actions supporting international campaigning efforts. This international case eventually settled in a ground-breaking law suit that saw 26 US retailers including GAP pay into a $20 million to a fund that paid back wages to several thousand workers and underwrote an extensive monitoring program.

2. Higher education project leads to a more ethical industry (2005)

The Fashioning an Ethical Industry project launched in June 2005 and ran for 6 years – a project which led to a generation of fashion professionals being briefed on sweatshops and how to ensure human rights in buying and design. The project worked alongside fashion tutors and fashion and textile- related courses throughout Britain to ensure ethics and sustainability became a key part of learning in fashion and textile- related courses. The FEI project inspired thousands of students through annual conferences and supported tutors through the production of teaching resources, and a multitude of workshops.

3. Fortune Garments workers win union busting case after Topshop ‘Greench’ campaign causes waves (2005)

In 2005 Labour Behind the Label launched a campaign calling on Philip Green, former CEO of Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins amongst others, to negotiate with one of their suppliers – Fortune Garments in Cambodia. Workers were demanding that illegally fired trade union activists be reinstated in their jobs and that management respond to worker demands. Our public campaign launched in the run-up to Christmas and focussed directly in Mr Green. He responded angrily to the store protests and media coverage, telephoning our office directly to demand we desist. Pressure on the buyers and factory from supporters and media, combined with the actions of the Fortune workers, led to the signing of an agreement including official recognition of the union, improved maternity benefits and more transparent wage payments.

4. Labour Behind the Label puts living wage firmly on the agenda of global brands (2006)

Although difficult to quantify, our work on establishing the need for action from brands on wages for workers in UK high street supply chains over the years has been vital and effective. Our Let’s Clean Up Fashion study profiling high street brands on their action to improve wages in their supply chains had 6 editions from its inception in 2006 to its latest occurrence in 2019. Over that time brands were tracked on action to ensure a living wage. In 2006, the vast majority of brands failed to acknowledge the difference between minimum wages in supplier countries and the amount needed to live with dignity for a family (a living wage). By 2019 this work is far more sophisticated with leading brands using benchmarks to drive and analyse wages in supplier factories, and working in collaboration on projects to implement collective bargaining to increase wages to living wage levels. Over the years we have held speaker tours with women workers talking about wage, delivered post card actions, held seminars and round tables with brands, and held actions. For example, we went to London Fashion Week dressed as vintage peanut sales people to give out free bags of peanuts. The labels on the bags said that workers are paid peanuts to make most highstreet copies of high fashion clothing, and that brands had to act to ensure an end to poverty in fashion. A link to a petition about poverty pay lobbying H&M to act was given. Hundreds of people signed it that day, also due to an article in the metro covering it.

We still have a long way to go to see living wage delivered in workers’ pockets, but LBL’s ongoing lobbying on this topic over many years has firmly established it as a topic for action

5. Playfair campaign pressures British sporting associations and sportswear brands, eventually causing London games organisers LOCOG to adopt model procurement policies and brands to sign an agreement with Indonesian unions on freedom of association (2004, 2008, 2012)

In collaboration with international unions, the Playfair campaign about sportswear production and production of merchandise for the big Olympic games, ran for many years, with LBL taking part in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Actions included a poster van that followed IOC members around a tour route, a giant deodorant spray can demo; an unfair tennis match at wimbledon and more… We published research, and lobbied sporting associations and brands with some success. In 2011, brands signed an historic enforceable agreement with Indonesian unions to make trade union rights a reality for Indonesian sportswear workers. Negotiations with Labour Behind the Label, TUC and London Olympic Games organisers LOCOG also resulted in their publishing a list of suppliers (for 72% of their licensed products), a commitment to make information about employment rights available in Chinese and English, the establishment of a Chinese language hotline so that workers could complain if their rights were violated, and training for workers in supply chains to make them more aware of their rights.

6. Primark gets serious about human rights after repeated media and campaign pressure (2009)

In the wake of media allegations of sweatshop labour (which we worked on with journalists), LBL launched a campaign in 2008 calling on Primark to ‘cut the spin’ and take concrete action to improve supply chain conditions. Hundreds of people sent postcards and emails, several demonstrations took place outside stores nationwide (including Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping performing an exorcism on the new Primark store in Bristol) and over 50 people protested outside Primark’s AGM in 2009 including Bangladeshi workers producing Primark clothes. Under pressure, Primark withdrew from a keynote speech at an ethical conference, and a motion was brought at its shareholder AGM. Primark’s submission to Let’s Clean up Fashion in 2009 showed pilot living wage projects started in India and China, and its ethical trade staff increased to 5 times the size of the previous year. Going forward it increased responsiveness and willingness to engage with unions and campaigners on supply chain violations.

7. Honduran workers win case after ‘Fruit of Doom’ actions and student solidarity (2009)

In 2009 LBL started working with student group People and Planet to support workers at the Jerzees de Honduras factory, producers for Russel Athletic. The factory was due to close, LBL believed in part, to rid itself of a strong, active trade union. Students across the UK joined forces with US students to support the campaign, including organising an action at the Fruit of the Loom (which owns Russel Athletic) UK headquarters. The campaign brought results. Russel Athletic were forced to sign an agreement with the union, reopening the factory under a new name, re-employing all the workers and entering into collective bargaining negotiations. It also kick-started student campaigning on labour rights, setting the ground work and motivation for a People and Planet campaign to get UK universities to affiliate to the Workers Rights Consortium, an organisation instrumental in getting justice for Jerzees’ workers.

8. Sandblasting campaign on deadly denim results in national ban (2011)

In 2011 Labour Behind the Label launched the Killer Jeans campaign calling on brands and retailers to ban the process of sandblasting used to fade and distress denim. This process is linked to the fatal lung disease called silicosis, known to have directly resulted in the death of workers in Turkey. Reports, media and demonstrations uncovered stark facts about faded jeans. As well as publishing new research about denim, and having activists insert messages into the pockets of jeans in shops, we held a funeral march outside Dolce & Gabana where we marched a coffin to their store, laid flowers and read out the names of people who had died from silicosis after sandblasting jeans. This action alongside other international efforts resulted in companies supporting public bans on the process for their products and eventually a national ban for all of Turkey was issued by the Turkish government – a win.

9. Adidas compensates Indonesian workers from PT Kizone following global campaign pressure (2013)

2,800 Indonesian garment workers were owed $1.8 million USD after their factory closed down and was declared bankrupt in April 2011. Adidas, the main buyer who withdrew from the factory, was targeted by an international campaign. Labour Behind the Label worked with People & Planet to mobilise students and campaigners in UK to support the workers and lobby adidas. Shop actions, a petition, online social media targeting and more took place. In April 2013 the workers finally won the case when adidas agreed to settle and accept responsibility for some of the $1.8 million in legally-owed severance pay. The workers received a substantial sum.

10. Support for Kingsland workers sees historic win (2013)

Labour Behind the Label campaigned alongside 160 workers from the Kingsland Factory in Cambodia who were owed unpaid wages and severance after their factory abruptly closed in 2012. Labour Behind the Label staff and supporters lobbied H&M and Walmart as part of international campaign efforts, while workers held a vigil and protest camp in front of the factory to prevent the factory’s assets from being stripped. In March 2013, the workers won an historic settlement, paid for by the brands and supplier collectively.

11. Rana Plaza, never forgotten – LBL ensures voices of Bangladeshi women are front and centre of the response (2013)

In April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1134 people and injuring thousands more. This event shaped Labour Behind the Label’s work for many years to come, and on the morning that it happened we started our campaign calling brands to engage and to work together to provide support and compensation for the families of victims. We spoke to hundreds of journalists and phoned and wrote to all the UK brands that week, and our efforts laid the ground work for the campaign that followed. We made sure to raise the voices of workers in Bangladesh and helped to manage media requests to talk to grieving families. Every year since we have marked the anniversary of that day. In 2014 this was a human chain along Oxford Street linking together people and brands around the world. In 2015 we held a walking tour to visit shops of brands who had not compensated workers. Our efforts, with UK media and brands, made sure that the story of Rana Plaza did not go unnoticed and was not forgotten.

12. Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh formally signed by brands, including many from the UK (2013)

Factory fires and building safety in Bangladesh had been a topic that Clean Clothes Campaign member organisations had been working on for many years prior to the Rana Plaza building collapse. Together with local and global unions and labour rights organisations, we had supported the development of a sector-wide program that included independent building inspections, worker rights training, public disclosures and a long-overdue review of safety standards. This transparent and practical agreement was already on the table by the time the Rana Plaza collapse occurred, meaning we were able to take the moment to create lasting and enforceable change. In the weeks that followed, we worked tirelessly to push UK brands to come to the table to sign and commit to work together to ensure all factories in Bangladesh could become safe and avoid the fate of Rana Plaza. Mass petitions, shop actions, media work and more happened in a short space of time. Over 200 brands signed in all in summer 2013, many from the UK, facilitated via our work.

13. Research by LBL on mass fainting used to win higher minimum wage for workers in Cambodia (2014)

From 2012 onwards mass faintings of groups of workers in Cambodian factories became a common occurrence. LBL worked with Cambodian unions and NGO partners to link these faintings to malnutrition and poor wages in factories. We pushed brands on the need for action on worker health and wages, through media stories, fainting in shops, and support for a people’s tribunal on poor wages. Our research unearthed worrying facts about garment workers’ health – showing that factory workers consumed just 1598 calories a day on average – around half the recommended amount for physically demanding work. The Body Mass Index (BMI) figures gathered from workers indicated that 25% of garment workers were seriously medically underweight, displaying figures that would be used to diagnose Anorexia in the UK. This health research was submitted to the Cambodian wage board as evidence for the urgent need to increase wages while it was debating the national sectoral wage increase for 2015. A $5 additional health bonus was awarded that year.

14. Compensation for Rana Plaza victims finally won after2 years of campaigning (2015)

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, a fund was set up by the ILO to collect payments for compensation for the loss of income and medical costs suffered by the Rana Plaza victims and their families. It was calculated that $30million was needed to pay in full over 5,000 awards. For two years, we called for justice alongside international partners, demanding brands and governments to pay into this pot. Over one million consumers around the world joined actions against many of the major high street companies whose products were being made in the building. We held street actions and supported international campaigns to call on major brands to pay in. In the UK we worked with shadow cabinet politicians to hold meetings in Westminster with brand groups and negotiate with them to pay. We facilitated and worked with multi-stakeholder groups to pressure UK brands to contribute. 5 UK brands paid in in the end, including a very significant figure from Primark. The completion of the fund and payments being made to families and survivors was an incredible moment of justice that we are very proud to have taken part in delivering.

15. Tazreen claims paid to workers after international campaign in which Labour Behind the Label supporters lobby Edinburgh Woollen Mill (2015)

Although smaller, the Tazreen Fashion garment factory fire that took place in 2012 killing 113 workers and injuring 200 more in Bangladesh was no less tragic or urgent to seek justice for. UK brand Edinburgh Woollen Mill was sourcing from the factory at the time, and we worked for three years to pressure the brand to take responsibility and contribute to the compensation pot. We held candle lit vigils at Edinburgh Woollen Mill stores around the country. Shadow ministers in the UK government called on the CEO to attend a hearing at Westminster, and demanded reports over what the brand would do to act. We worked with a journalist who door stepped the CEO, and we got activists to call his office repeatedly. Pensioners organised an ongoing campaign outside one store. In the end, Edinburgh Woollen Mill shamefully did not pay into the fund. However, in September 2015 the Tazreen Claims Trust finally completed an arrangement and survivors and the families of victims were paid in an act of justice, thanks to a donation from the C&A Foundation. We celebrate that we were involved in this international effort and our role in making sure the brands who should have paid in were asked to do so and given every opportunity.

16. Shoes campaigning brings the plight of leather workers to London Fashion week (2016)

Campaigning in 2016 highlighted the deadly use of toxic chemicals putting workers lives at risk in the tanning and production of leather shoes. Chromium tanning agents can produce carcinogenic substances which cause lung cancer, asthma, skin ulcers, nose bleeds, fevers, headaches and eczema in workers. The complete lack of transparency in the shoe business was also a major feature of the campaign, which called on UK brands to move away from the use of dangerous chemicals and to publish information about their suppliers, respecting the rights of all their workers and showing that they are not afraid to be held accountable for working conditions. Research and demos at London Fashion week promoted debate with brands.

17. Greater transparency achieved for UK high street fashion after Primark, River Island and now Boohoo publish their supplier lists (2017)

Visibility of factories and where clothes are made became a priority for the Clean Clothes Campaign. We lobbied and wrote to multiple highstreet brands and shoe brands about publishing their supplier lists, and signing up to the transparency pledge. Campaigning on e-retailer Boohoo- the BooWho? Campaign – in 2019 focused strongly on demands to publish Boohoo’s factory locations, where activists put up subvertising posters in Manchester where the brand is based, and sent postcards and emails. Campaigning around Black Friday 2020 took place online with a subvertising Instagram deluge to call on the brand to act. This coincided with political work where Boohoo was called to report to a UK Parliamentary committee and asked about publishing their supplier locations. At this hearing they committed to publish within a year. In September 2021 their list finally came out – overdue but a good step forward.

18. Labour Behind the Label spotlights illegal work in Leicester resulting in collaborative efforts from brands, government and enforcement bodies to work towards solutions for UK garment workers (2018)

Reports of illegal working conditions in Leicester factories have been coming to light since 2015 and Labour Behind the Label started to build networks and collaborate with community groups and unions on the ground in Leicester in 2018. During the COVID pandemic our work came to a head, when we published reports about worker exploitation in Leicester factories, illegal pay, unsafe conditions and poor brand purchasing leading to exploitation in June 2020. A series of news exposes of Boohoo’s supply chain followed, many of which we worked on in collaboration with journalists, and Labour Behind the Label were able to call for brands, unions and community groups, and enforcement bodies to look holistically at the issues and forge solutions. We worked to encourage relevant brands and unions to come to the table. A coordinated body including all relevant stakeholders is now taking forward some action, and we are pushing for an enforceable legally signed agreement between unions and brands to come from this.

19. Campaign to push Tesco wins compensation for the Kanlayanee workers (2020)

The Burmese migrant Kanlayanee workers won their case in April this year and received full compensation, following in a global campaign that LBL worked on, lobbying Tesco to pay their share. 26 Burmese workers who were illegally underpaid while making products for major brands including Tesco, Starbucks, NBC Universal and Disney have now received all the wages and severance legally owed to them. Tesco was the first brand to agree to pay, and other American companies followed suit after campaigns pressured them all to contribute to the pot. The success of this wage theft case sets a global precedent for other brands to follow in terms of brand accountability in an industry made up of 80% women and where migrant labour is rife. We are proud to have supported the workers in this case.

20. Next NML Union in Sri Lanka get recognition after solidarity campaigning in UK (2021)

In January 2021, following a successful walkout to win back unpaid bonuses, garment workers at a Next owned factory in Sri Lanka (called Next Manufacturing Limited) formed a new branch of the FTZ&GSEU trade union, with more than half the workforce joining. For 6 months factory management refused to recognise the union or negotiate, and workers reported intimidation, threats and discrimination. Labour Behind the Label, together with War on Want, held a campaign amplifying workers’ demands and telling Next to respect workers’ rights. Activists in the UK signed petitions, sent letters and telephoned Next (and were put through, surprisingly, to real staff members) to ask them to recognise the union. In June this year, Next management caved and wrote to the union acknowledging their place, agreeing to listen and to include measures to protect their health. This was achieved by international solidarity. Thank you everyone who took part.