The story of FWF member brand Mayerline and one of its suppliers, the first Turkish knitwear company with a Collective Bargaining Agreement
Effective collective bargaining is the most sustainable way to improve working conditions and help secure living wages for workers in the garment sector. Brand involvement can be crucial in creating an enabling environment. This is clearly shown by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed in December 2013 between the Textile, Knitting and Clothing Workers’ Union of Turkey (Teksif) and a supplier of FWF member brand Mayerline.
In this particular case, the process that led to this positive outcome began with the dismissal of unionist workers at a knitwear factory in Istanbul, in violation of the principle of Freedom of Association. The dismissals resulted in a workers’ protest. The dispute escalated and led to a workers’ strike that lasted nearly three months. Trade Union Teksif then filed a complaint with FWF, using FWF’s Complaints Procedure.
Active mediation by Fair Wear Foundation with the support of its Belgian member brand Mayerline paid off. The Teksif union and the factory management began negotiations, which eventually resulted in a major breakthrough: a three-year CBA was signed in December 2013, the first in Turkey’s knitwear industry. The factory also reinstated most of the dismissed workers.
“The CBA has made workers happier. Altogether, the gains, in wages, reduced hours and increased social benefits, amount to about 300 TL (around € 128) a month per worker,” says Asalettin Arslanoğlu, organising manager of the Teksif trade union.
The wage increase is an important steps towards a living wage: an FWF audit conducted in 2014 shows that all workers in the factory now earn above the legal minimum wage for a regular working week (859 TL); wage levels in this factory are now close to or above local living wage estimates for a single person (around 1600 TL or € 680), though living wage estimates for a family of four are still considerably higher (the lowest estimate recorded in the FWF Wage Ladder being 3333 TL).
Just over a year after the deal was struck, workers at the knitwear factory acknowledge that the CBA has significantly improved their lives. “This is the first time in my life I work 8-hour days”, says a 37 year-old worker, employed at the facility for the past 7 years. In the knitting sector where he has been employed for 17 years, 12-hour days, six days a week, are common, in violation of legal requirements. Thanks to the CBA, workers at this facility, which currently employs around 300 workers, work 45 hours a week and they enjoy higher wages as well as social benefits such as food support or a child allowance.
The impact of this negotiated resolution resonated beyond the knitting factory, where almost all workers are now Teksif members, while the remaining few pay a solidarity fee to the union. Across the sector, medium- and large-size manufacturers felt compelled to adjust their working hours and wages to prevent labour unrest. “In the sector, workers know each other because they change jobs frequently. We became an example for other companies. Many of them have reduced their working hours,” the worker says.
This is confirmed by the union, Teksif, which witnessed a wave of enrolments following the CBA, as more garment workers, encouraged by this positive outcome, signed up for membership. “In the knitwear sector, union membership increased significantly. All knitwear workshops are now aware of the union,” says Asalettin Arslanoğlu. “Even people who are not members turn to us when there is a problem.”
Fair Wear Foundation believes that three key elements are needed to promote living wages: first, the active involvement of clothing brands to change business practices; secondly, cooperation and long-term partnerships with factories; and thirdly, systemic changes in the garment industry.
In the Turkish case, FWF member brand Mayerline, from Belgium, played a key role in the fulfillment of the first two conditions. Mayerline currently works with some 20 suppliers in several countries. In 2012, the brand decided to expand its supply network to include Turkey and it was impressed with the knitwear produced at this factory. “Our main focus is on quality and once we started work with the company, we were very excited with the quality of their production,” explains Sarunas Dauksys, General Operations Manager at Mayerline.
When tension rose between the workers and the management, Mayerline, in line with its business approach and with FWF requirements, chose to engage with the factory management, rather than walking away. With the support of the FWF country representative, Mayerline urged its supplier to negotiate with the workers’ union. Meanwhile, larger brands which were major clients of this factory, opted instead not to get involved in the dispute – or even cut their business relationship.
Although Mayerline only buys a small share of the factory’s production, around 10%, it successfully convinced the management to listen to the workers’ demands and engage in dialogue with union representatives. Mayerline’s track record as a brand that forges long-term partnerships with its suppliers boosted its influence.
“After a few months of discussion with FWF and the manufacturer, we found a solution. The next step was to sign this collective bargaining agreement,” says Sarunas Dauksys. “Higher quality requires higher skills and prices should reflect that too. We appreciate management for taking this step – especially given the fact that they were the first Turkish knitwear factory to do so.”
No factory is perfect, and the deal has not eliminated all labour issues. A Collective Bargaining Agreement is a major first step, which provides a crucial framework for the relations between brands, manufacturers and workers. But the dialogue must be maintained over time, even if relations between employers and unions are rarely easy. Sustaining good working conditions is an ongoing process, which requires commitment of all parties, as well as solid mechanisms for workers to voice complaints, vigilance on the part of the union, and a constant determination of all parties to address problems that arise.
Systemic change in the garment industry, the third element identified by FWF as key in the struggle for living wages in the garment sector, is the most difficult goal to achieve. Progress is incremental. Workers at Mayerline’s Turkish supplier are pleased with their improved working conditions. In a very competitive global and local environment, however, long-term job security remains a main concern, for them and for all other workers employed in the sector.
Many fashion buyers remain focused on extracting the lowest price from their suppliers. Some of them turn a blind eye when, as a result, factories are tempted to outsource part of their orders to sub-contractors who are willing to do the job more cheaply.
Living wages should be a natural cost of doing business, not an option. But the reality in many garment-producing countries falls far short of this norm. Globalisation has made the supply chain increasingly complex, and the low-price expectations of consumers on the shop floor often end up putting further pressure on wages at the production end.
Getting more garment producers to abide by basic labour standards, such as laid down in the FWF Code Code of Labour Practices, is important to level the playing field and ensure that factory owners who do pay decent wages do not end up losing out to more ruthless competitors who are paying a pittance.
Fashion brands have a responsibility to apply fair pricing policies that support, rather than penalise, suppliers that engage in social dialogue with their workers. Consumers, too, should be more aware of the provenance of the garments they purchase, and how they were produced. “A living wage needs to be part of the manufacturing cost, not the competitive price,” says Ruth Vermeulen, Senior International Verification Coordinator at FWF.
From the employer’s perspective, the CBA signed with Teksif brought some drawbacks. “Previously we had a continuous performance-based salary system, which took into account several factors including efficiencies, absences and know-how levels,” the company CEO explains. “This performance system was cancelled after the CBA. From our point of view, this is one negative result, which does not allow us to separate high-output workers from low-output ones.”
The CBA may also have narrowed margins for the Turkish factory owner, but his employees are more content. The agreement has also reduced labour turnover in a sector where skilled workers can be hard to find. “No one wants to lose a job like this one,” says a 30 year-old worker from this factory, who has been working in the sector since the age of 12.
Mayerline was not the biggest customer of this factory, and had only started production there in 2012. Thus, this example demonstrates that the influence fashion brands have on their suppliers depends not only on the volume they purchase – or on the longevity of the business relationship – but but also on their attitude toward them and their willingness to view them as long-term partners.
With a track record as a brand that stands by its suppliers and cooperates with them over the years, Mayerline was able to convince the factory to invest in the welfare of its workers.
The CBA signed between Teksif and the Turkish knitwear factory has demonstrated the power of collective bargaining. It sent a positive signal across the garment sector in Turkey, confirming that the best wage is a collectively negotiated wage. It also showed that by taking their responsibilities seriously and demanding that their suppliers engage with their labour force, fashion brands have a key role to play in fostering social dialogue. To ensure the CBA is sustainable in the long term, however, the dialogue between the workers and their employer needs to be strengthened further. Other brands sourcing at this factory must also adopt pricing policies that support the CBA and reflect the additional costs to the manufacturer.