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Victory for newly unionised garment workers in Nike factory, Sri Lanka

Victory for newly unionised garment workers in Nike factory, Sri Lanka

Victory for newly unionised garment workers in Nike factory, Sri Lanka

After months of struggle and uncertainty, 18 workers at a factory in Sri Lanka making socks for Nike, who were suspended for forming a branch union, are now back at work with the branch union in place. This victory shows that union busting has no place in garment supply chains and that workers standing together and international solidarity can make a real difference.

On 7 September 2023, workers at the Texlan Centre factory in Sri Lanka, owned by Interloop group and a supplier to Nike, informed management of the formation of a branch union of the Free Trade Zones and General Service Employees Union (FTZ & GSEU), providing the names of the office bearers and committee members. The workers formed the union in response to concerns about their working conditions, including the lack of availability of filtered drinking water for workers and being unable to inform family members of unexpected night work.

In response, management contacted employees to warn them to stop unionising or risk dismissal. The following day, twelve branch union office bearers and committee members and four active members were suspended without pay. Several days later two additional union members were suspended. Management claimed bogus disciplinary allegations as the reason for the suspensions. The branch union president faced death threats and was warned to refrain from further union activity.

The parent union FTZ & GSEU immediately contacted the company about these blatant union busting tactics, and when the management did not show any willingness to accept the union, filed a complaint to the Special Investigation Unit of the Department of Labour. Meanwhile, the Clean Clothes Campaign case group, which Labour Behind the Label participated in, advocated to the factory group Interloop in Pakistan, as well as the main buyer Nike, requesting intervention in line with their obligations under UN Guiding Principles. As the proceedings dragged on, the union managed to ensure that the suspended workers were paid at least their base wages pending resolution.

After months of struggling for their trade union rights, on 15 February 2024 the workers signed an agreement with factory management allowing them back to work, with all bogus disciplinary allegations dropped, back payment of the bonuses workers missed during the months of suspension, and management being ordered not to interfere with the activities of the branch union. The FTZ branch union will start operating in the factory immediately.

The Texlan workers’ victory shows that solidarity is our greatest weapon against union busting and intimidation in global supply chains!

Press release: protesters denounce anti-worker reforms in Sri Lanka

Press release: protesters denounce anti-worker reforms in Sri Lanka

Press release: protesters denounce anti-worker reforms in Sri Lanka

For immediate release: 20 September 2023

  • Workers struggling to survive Sri Lanka’s cost of living crisis face new attacks on labour rights and pensions.
  • ‘Hands off workers rights’ – trade unions and campaigners protest reforms at Sri Lankan High Commission, London.

Trade unions and labour rights campaigners gathered in London today in solidarity with workers in Sri Lanka, where labour law reforms are set to undermine employment rights while debt restructuring targets workers’ pensions. War on Want and Labour Behind the Label submitted a letter supported by Unite the union, GMB, Fire Brigades Union, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) and the Trades Union Congress, Scottish Trades Union Congress and Wales Trades Union Congress to the Sri Lanka High Commission, raising concerns about the roll-back on workers’ rights, pay and pensions and calling on the Sri Lankan government to engage with the labour movement.

High inflation and currency devaluation has already pushed workers into poverty in Sri Lanka. Now the government is seeking to push through a unified Labour Law which would push hundreds of thousands of working people into further precarity by downgrading basic rights and protections. The new law would put workers at the mercy of employers who could unilaterally increase their working day to 12 or 16 hours without overtime, increase night-work or arbitrarily dismiss them.

At the same time, workers’ pension funds (Employee Provident and Trust Funds) have been singled out by the Government and Central Bank to bear the burden of domestic debt restructuring, a process which itself is arguably unnecessary except to please foreign debt and IMF creditors. This will diminish returns to wage-earners and deplete the fund – which represents the retirement savings of 2.6 million workers – to half its current value.

Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trades Zones and General Services Employees Union, representing workers in Sri Lanka’s biggest export industry – the garment sector – said:

If these reforms go through it will unleash a race to the bottom on labour rights in Sri Lanka that will hurt ordinary working people – especially women in the apparel sector who are often sole breadwinners for their families. They will be at the mercy of their employers – forced to accept longer hours, or working more nights out of fear of losing their jobs and what little wages they can earn. We are encouraged to see organisations around the world, including trade unions, also raising their concerns about these reforms. International solidarity with working people in Sri Lanka is really important at this time.”

ENDS

 

Notes to editors

For media enquiries please contact:

Photographs available on request.

Letter handed in to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner: https://waronwant.org/sites/default/files/2023-09/Joint%20Ltr_SriLankaHC_20Sept23%20signed.pdf

Further information

Statement on the crisis faced by garment workers in Sri Lanka

Statement on the crisis faced by garment workers in Sri Lanka

Labour Behind the Label stands in solidarity with workers in Sri Lanka against the government’s reckless plans to drastically reduce labour law protections. Read our statement below.

Sri Lanka’s garment workers have been bearing the brunt of the financial and political crisis that has haunted the country for over 1.5 years, with high inflation and currency devaluation pushing workers into poverty while the government and employers repress their right to organise. With the government now rushing through procedurally unsound changes to labour laws, and domestic debt restructuring measures targeting workers’ social security funds, garment workers in Sri Lanka will be deprived of even more basic rights and protections against precarity. National and international labour rights organisations appeal to the government of Sri Lanka to respect tripartite processes and refrain from targeting workers’ social security funds as part of debt restructuring measures.

Labour law

The government’s attempt to overhaul existing labour laws into a unified labour code has from the outset ignored established tripartite consultation mechanisms and bypassed other existing democratic processes. Draft legislation, for example, has not been made available in all the country’s official languages. Beyond the problematic process, which disregards the rights of trade unions as well as minorities, we are concerned that the proposed unified labour law seeks to eliminate the rights and protection of workers in the interests of creating a more exploitable labour force. By removing international minimum standards such as the eight hour working day, paid overtime entitlements and protections against arbitrary dismissal, allowing employers to force employees to work for four weeks straight without days off, reducing annual leave entitlements, and weakening freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, this legislation will increasingly leave workers at the mercy of their employers, without any recourse.

We believe that any revision of Sri Lanka’s labour laws requires a thorough consultative process, in which the voices of workers and their elected trade union representatives are heard. This could be realised by the government appointing a credible independent commission with the participation of experts such as the International Labour Organisation. Any consultation process must include the four trade unions which were unlawfully removed from the National Labour Advisory Council in June 2023.

Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones & General Service Employees Union in Sri Lanka says:

The government’s proposals and process for the overhaul of the labour law violate international norms for decent work and threaten to unleash a race to the bottom on labour rights. Only an inclusive, transparent, and democratic process of engagement with the participation of all relevant tripartite stakeholders can lead to results that are acceptable to workers and meet international norms. 

Social security

Workers are additionally concerned about their rights and livelihoods now that the government, in response to the ongoing international debt crisis, has announced a restructuring of domestic debt. The restructuring targets superannuation or pension funds, with the largest among them, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), representing 2.5 million workers. Workers pay into this fund through deductions from already meagre wages throughout their working lives. Their laboriously built-up retirement funds are now being targeted without any consultation. Moreover, such restructuring does not apply to other treasury bond holders. If workers’ social security funds are not included, the government has threatened to ensure these funds pay the price through other means, such as a tax increase from 14 to 30%.

Singling out superannuation funds, and thereby forcing Sri Lankan workers to foot the bill for a debt crisis for which they are not responsible, is arbitrary and unfair. We support the position of the major trade unions who have requested the Governor of the Central Bank to halt all decision-making and call for a trade union forum to discuss this matter. 

The Clean Clothes Campaign, the Free Trade Zone & General Services Employees Union, the International Union Educational League, Labour behind the Label, Maquila Solidarity Network, and War on Want stand in solidarity with the garment workers of Sri Lanka, a majority of whom are women and migrant workers. Workers took to the streets in protest on 19, 20 and 25 July and we stand with them as they continue to protest and resist the government’s attacks on their basic labour rights and hard-earned social security funds. We urge the government of Sri Lanka and all stakeholders involved, such as employers associations, the IMF and the Central Bank, to ensure workers are not forced to pay the price for the country’s ongoing crisis by

  • Immediately halting the existing labour reform process; 
  • Devising specific, transparent, and consensus-based “terms of reference” for the process of reforms with the participation of all relevant tripartite stakeholders of the world of work such as International Labour Organisation, to come to a reform process that ensures local Labour laws are made consistent with norms of International Labour Standards and Decent Work;
  • Ensuring that international standards are not violated and that such a reform process is carried by a tripartite and democratic process with participation from trade unions, the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) and other key stakeholders. 
  • Reinstating the four trade unions which were unlawfully removed from the National Labour Advisory Council in June 2023; 
  • Halting the targeting of EPF/ETF (pension funds) for debt restructuring without adequate engagement with the workers and their representatives. 
  • Ensuring that workers do not have to bear a ‘disproportionate’ burden of the economic crisis and that their rights are respected.

Press Release: UK brands’ inaction on Pakistan Accord risks garment worker lives

Press Release: UK brands’ inaction on Pakistan Accord risks garment worker lives

For immediate release: 14 July 2023

 

This week marks six months since the Pakistan Safety Accord was launched following years of campaigning by trade unions and labour organisations. The binding factory safety programme is modelled on the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which has made factories safer for 2.5 million garment workers in Bangladesh. 

In the past six months 63 brands have signed the Pakistan Accord, covering hundreds of supplier factories. However, major brands who source from Pakistan are still missing – including UK brands Boohoo, The Very Group, Matalan, Asda and Missguided. Boohoo, The Very Group, Matalan and Fatface are signatories to the International Accord, raising questions as to why workers in Pakistan are being made to wait for the protections afforded workers in Bangladesh. Asda and Missguided have as yet failed to sign either of these life-saving mechanisms for worker safety.

As brands take their time, workers risk their lives. As the recent fire and building collapse at Usman & Sons factory shows, deadly incidents can happen at any time until inspections and implementation of corrective action plans start. Labels of a French supermarket chain, who had failed to sign the 2021 International Accord and the Pakistan Accord were found in the rubble of the Karachi factory.

Zehra Khan, general secretary of the Pakistan Home Based Women Workers’ Federation, said: “Workers in Pakistan have waited for long enough. The solutions exist, but some brands still risk workers’ lives and are escaping their responsibility. We call on brands and retailers to start putting speed behind the operation and make participation in the Pakistan Accord a top priority.”

Nasir Mansoor, general secretary general of the National Trade Union Federation in Pakistan said: “We need all brands with production in Pakistan to sign the Accord as soon as possible. And, once brands sign, they must not sit back and relax. Only after inspections begin and workers can hand in complaints, will the risk of the next factory fire or collapse actually start to lower.” 

ENDS

 

Notes for editors

For media enquiries please contact:

Press Release: Tesco to be grilled on rights abuses in supply chain at AGM mired in scandal

Press Release: Tesco to be grilled on rights abuses in supply chain at AGM mired in scandal

For immediate release: 16 June 2023

Hooks: Tesco Chair steps down at AGM following alleged inappropriate conduct towards female staff; Tesco facing forced labour lawsuit from 130 Burmese garment workers in Thailand factory supplying F&F jeans.

 

Representatives from the human rights campaign group Labour Behind the Label will today raise concerns that Tesco’s use of social auditing is putting the workers who make their clothes at risk of abuse.

Tesco and social audit firm Intertek are facing a lawsuit brought by 130 Burmese workers who made F&F jeans for Tesco in Thailand [1]. VK Garment workers say they were trapped in forced labour conditions, working 99-hour weeks for illegally low pay, while auditors failed to report abuses workers flagged. Workers are suing Tesco and Intertek for negligence and unjust enrichment in a case bought by the law firm Leigh Day.

At its Annual General Meeting today Labour Behind the Label will ask the Tesco board why they continue to rely on auditing practices which fail to protect workers in their supplier factories, and whether they will be cutting ties with Intertek after its ineffectual audits opened the company up to international legal action.

The scandal-ridden AGM will also see Tesco chair John Allan stand down following accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards female staff. [2] Approximately 80% of garment workers around the world who make clothes for brands like Tesco are women.

Campaigners are questioning how Tesco as a company is protecting women from rights violations, both within their own operations and in global supply chains.

Anna Bryher, Policy Lead for Labour Behind the Label, said:

“Women in garment factories around the world are routinely subject to exploitation and rights abuse. Tesco profited from the VK Garment workers’ exploitation while Intertek stood by and watched, failing to report the abuse they witnessed including threats, fraud, excessive hours and more. Tesco and Intertex must pay VK workers and settle the legal case being brought against them. It’s the least they can do.”

“Social auditing is a multi-million pound industry that provides a fig leaf for abuse in garment factories worldwide [3]. Fashion brands pay social audit firms to provide plausible deniability, while everyone in the industry knows rights abuse is endemic. Social auditing not only fails to identify human rights violations, but also actively undermines human rights protection. The Rana Plaza building which collapsed in Dhaka housed factories where social audits had taken place just months before the disaster, giving green lights to brands where there should have been warnings.”

“Tesco as a company has the opportunity through this case to cut ties with big audit firms like Intertek, and adopt a more transparent, hands on way of monitoring labour rights in factories, that could see active participation in rights protection.”

The full text of the question being put to the Tesco board is available below [4].

ENDS

Notes for editors

  • Labour Behind the Label is a campaign that works to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry.
  • The Tesco Annual General Meeting will be held in the Heart building of Tesco’s Welwyn Garden City campus on Friday, 15 June at 11.30am.

For media enquiries please contact:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/dec/18/workers-in-thailand-who-made-ff-jeans-for-tesco-trapped-in-effective-forced-labour

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/may/19/tesco-chair-john-allan-steps-down

[3] https://cleanclothes.org/file-repository/figleaf-for-fashion.pdf/view

[4] Question text:

Labour Behind the Label Question concerning Tesco’s approach to social auditing in its garment supplier factories 

In December The Guardian reported that Burmese workers who produced F&F jeans for Tesco in Thailand were trapped in forced labour conditions, working 99-hour weeks for illegally low pay. A lawsuit has been launched by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of the 130 VK Garment workers, seeking damages from both Tesco, and social auditors Intertek, for alleged negligence and unjust enrichment. Intertek’s role in this case is that its audits failed to identify systematic wage violations, forced labour concerns and fraud, year on year, despite workers saying they flagged issues with auditors. While I won’t ask the board to comment on the lawsuit itself, my question concerns Tesco’s ongoing approach to factory monitoring.

Social auditing has been shown not only to fail to identify human rights violations and function as an expensive fig-leaf, but also to actively undermine human rights protection. Indeed, the Rana Plaza building which collapsed in Dhaka had factories with clear social audits, just months before the disaster, giving green lights to brands where there should have been warnings. Therefore, I’d like to ask the following:

  1. Can the board say whether Tesco is concerned about relying on social auditing as a structure in general to ensure human rights are upheld in its supplier factories given the failures of the system to provide real visibility of labour rights and safety concerns?
  2. Can the board comment on whether Tesco is reconsidering its relationship with the firm Intertek specifically after their social auditing services failed to provide visibility of labour rights violations at VK Garments and opened Tesco up to an international lawsuit?