Global brands' obligation to protect workers' right to form trade unions | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 24, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:16 PM, April 24, 2016

Global brands' obligation to protect workers' right to form trade unions

Three years ago, the world witnessed the Rana Plaza building collapse - one of the most horrific workplace accidents that could have been prevented but which led to the death of over 1,134 garment workers, and left over 2,500 injured. Behind these numbers is a story: a mother who lost her daughter, a child who has lost his mother, and a wife who has lost her husband.  To this day, vivid images of workers being pulled out of the rubble and dead bodies entangled with the debris of the building haunt me.

The tragedy clearly revealed safety concerns in the physical structure of buildings that housed garment factories and the need for improved building safety code and safety inspections. The Accord and Alliance are two safety inspection programmes that are seeking to accomplish this but they are only a 5-year programme and are set to expire in 2018.  We need to have long-term and sustainable solutions to labour rights especially as Rana Plaza recedes further back into our global consciousness and other issues grab our attention.

 The tragedy also revealed a profound gap in what I call the human rights infrastructure for workers, and their vulnerabilities in the global supply chain and high potential for human rights violations. In other words, when such a tragedy occurs, we clearly see where the State and relevant stakeholders have not created adequate laws or protections that workers could have accessed to prevent a similar tragedy or avoid other labour rights violations. For example, had the workers had a trade union in place that could have advocated for workers to refuse to enter the unsafe building, it is possible that we may have avoided this catastrophe. Or if laws existed that allowed a worker to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and protected such worker from any retaliation from the employer, then workers may have been able to refuse to enter the building after observing cracks. 

Rana Plaza demonstrates the critical role trade unions can play in shoring up this rights infrastructure gap, and we need to move beyond an unproductive polarising discussion around trade unions, and move towards policies that develop robust trade union rights so workers can have a vehicle to raise their concerns.

The Government of Bangladesh should work towards removing barriers for workers to form unions. The process to forming a trade union is cumbersome and bureacratic, and often leads to rejections from the Department of Labour without adequate cause. While employees no longer require permission from an employer to file for registration, employers often find out that a unionisation process is underway and intimidate workers from going through the process. One worker shared that when she was organising in her factory and filed for registration, the Labour Department contacted the employer to “verify whether the list of workers” were in fact employees there. This was a ruse to inform employers of the list of workers who were unionising.  Then, prior to registration, those workers were terminated and it undermined the organising process. There are countless other examples of thwarting efforts of unions, even after workers get around the already difficult process of having to collect signatures of 33 percent of the workers.

Beyond the Government's role in ensuring that workers are able to form trade unions, the global brands have a key role to play here. When asked what brands could do, workers consistently said that brands should only source from factories where there exists a trade union or give preference to companies who have a worker formed trade union in place. This preference would incentivise owners to allow trade unions to exist.

There is in fact support for corporate brands to proactively support trade unions and the exercise of freedom of association as per the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights that advises transnational businesses to address human rights impact of their business. While not binding, the UN Principles provide a blueprint from which to address labour rights issue.

The Guidelines explicitly refer to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work that includes the right of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The right to collectively bargain is one of the fundamental rights that businesses should also protect.

It is therefore good corporate practice for global brands that source from Bangladesh to ensure that workers who produce their garments are able to collectively bargain for labour rights. At present, in factories I have visited last year, some brands have posters and signs that communicate this right, but that is not enough as most workers are not aware of their rights under trade unions.

Global brands need to make a more proactive effort. The Indonesian Freedom of Association Protocol with unions, factory management and international brands, including Nike and Adidas that bind the parties to a set of standards and procedures to ensure that factory workers have the freedom to form unions and organise for their rights, is a good place to start for some ideas. There, the factories set forth some clear guidelines to ensure that workers can form a union, and also bargain collectively with their employer.  

UN Guidelines also advise businesses to create remedies for human rights violations. Where trade unions are not able to form due to employer obstruction or retaliation, or government delay, global brands should create an alternate dispute settlement mechanism for workers to bring those concerns to their attention. Having some dispute settlement mechanism in place, even an informal one, will allow brands to know what is happening at the factory level, and will clue them into any human rights issues in advance of it progressing to a more alarming level. 

No longer can brands turn a blind eye to labour rights violations, and having a proactive approach is not only right in terms of upholding human rights but also protects their business interests, and the integrity of their brand.  Slogans like “clothes to die for” or “blood on your shirts” do nothing to build consumer confidence to purchase clothes that may have been produced in violation of labour rights.

When the global brands signal to garment factory owners that they value trade unions and workers' ability to organise, owners will feel incentivised to follow suit. It is an incentive worth promoting, especially if it can save lives, protect workers, and promote a business that values the labour of its workers, and not view them as expendable commodities. As we mourn those who died in Rana Plaza, let us remember they have human rights because they are human beings.  Behind every worker is a story, a family that is struggling to provide a better future for their children. Let's commit not only to inspect the building structure to avoid another Rana Plaza, but also to institute the human rights infrastructure needed for people to live with respect and dignity.


The writer is a human rights attorney and editor of online platform Law@theMargins ( Follow her @lawatmargins
Note: Join Chaumtoli Huq as she hosts an online discussion on the State of Labour Rights in Bangladesh 
on Monday, April 25 at 10AM EDT (8pm Dhaka Time). Register here

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