What are the challenges to ensuring impactful social dialogue?

Before effective social dialogue can occur, the rights to ‘freedom of association and collective bargaining’ must be respected and protected.

At Fair Wear, this right is enshrined in our Code of Labour Practice Standard #2, and the expectation of member brands and their suppliers is defined in our ‘Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining Policy’. These are grounded in International Labour Organization standards; namely Conventions 87 and 98. These rights need to be protected by governments and respected by all stakeholders. In reality though, there continue to be serious threats to workers and ongoing anti-union behaviour by both employers and governments.

Common ways this is done is by victimising trade union officials, interfering with trade union activities, and using threats and other means to prevent genuine freedom of association in a workplace. The ITUC’s 2021 Global Rights Index noted that authorities tried to prevent registration of unions in 109 countries; 79% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining, and 74% of countries excluded workers from the right to join or form a trade union. Often, workers are dismissed if they are associated with a trade union.

Even when workers are not dismissed entirely, commons tactics that employers may use include threats to workers, transfers to different departments or production locations, violently approaching people, and even hiring industrial police and other aggressors to beat up protesting workers. For many workers, these potential threats stop them in engaging with or joining unions. Before truly impactful social dialogue can take place, these violations of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining must be addressed.

In 2020 Fair Wear, with partners Mondiaal FNV and CNV Internationaal, engaged with Cornell University’s New Conversation Project to map the main barriers to Social Dialogue in 11 garment-producing countries. These extensive research reports provide a deep-dive into the country-specific barriers that workers and trade unions face when trying to exercise their rights to freedom of association and engage in social dialogue. These reports, alongside a synthesis report which highlights overall trends and recommendations for improvements can be found here. These reports provided key insights for Fair Wear to improve our strategy and work on this topic.

At Fair Wear we work in various garment producing countries, partnering with local stakeholders such as trade unions, NGOs, and government to work towards increased respect for these rights. We also have developed a Brand Guide to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining that outlines six concrete steps brands can take to promote and protect these rights in their own practices and supply chains.