Creating a more equal balance of power through direct agreements

In-depth article by Tina Rogers, Social Dialogue Coordinator, Fair Wear

Last month, a ground-breaking agreement in the global garment industry was signed in India, bringing together actors from across the supply chain including global brand H&M, trade unions and labour organisations Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, and Global Labour Justice- International Labour Rights Forum and manufacturer Eastman Exports Global Clothing Private Limited.

This binding agreement is set to address gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) by jointly committing to work together to eradicate discrimination based on gender, caste, or migration status; increase transparency, and to develop a culture of mutual respect in the garment factory setting. The agreement came about after a factory worker, Jeyasre Kathrivel, was murdered by a supervisor in 2021 at Natchi Apparel in Tamil Nadu.

We welcome the announcement of this agreement, as it establishes a model of collaboration between global supply chain actors, where each group is making a binding legal commitment to each address the issue of GBVH from their place in the supply chain. Particularly of note is that a global brand, H&M, is engaging in a direct agreement with a local trade union (TU), ensuring that TU has the backing and commitment of a powerful supply chain actor to ensure the workers can exercise their rights to freedom of association and engage in dialogue with their employer.

This type of agreement is precisely what Fair Wear calls for in our Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining Policy where we state, “Member brands should participate in direct agreements with trade unions that ensure worker participation in identifying, addressing and remediating issues related to the conditions of their work.” By brands engaging directly with trade unions and entering into a commitment with both them and the suppliers, it creates a more equal balance of power, where each actor has a responsibility to take action in order to address GBVH or other issues.

In the case of the newly formed agreement in India, H&M has committed to provide financial support for training and awareness-raising, help establish an independent grievance mechanism, and provide for measuring impact. Fair Wear would suggest that a brand could make even further commitments in such agreements, such as committing to stay with the supplier for the long-term, agreeing to improved planning processes in collaboration with the trade union and committing to paying higher prices so that workers can reach a negotiated living wage. This model is certainly a starting point and there is always room for expansion.

But why are these types of commitments so important? Simply put, in the normal supply chain structure, there is a massive imbalance of power between the brands, the suppliers and the workers. In most cases, the brand holds significant control over the price of products, the timeline for delivery and the acceptance or not of orders. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen clearly the risk of this structure – that brands can break agreements leaving suppliers and workers in the lurch. A trans-national agreement such as the aforementioned brings the key actors – brands, suppliers and trade unions – together at the table where they EACH have made legally binding commitments, established through negotiation. Brands cannot so easily walk away or dismiss their responsibility once an agreement such as this has been signed, and trade unions have a clear and legitimate role which is acknowledged by all so therefore cannot be excluded as is often the case.

This type of agreement can represent a new form of cross-border social dialogue in global garment supply chains. Given the scale and diffusion of global supply chains, there is a need to find new organising structures that meet the realities of today’s global industry – where ALL of the powerful actors are at the table. Some mix of brands, trade unions, suppliers, governments, and civil society organisations – and quite possibly all of these – will need to collaborate to find lasting solutions. 

These types of agreements provide unique advantages to workers, unions, suppliers, and brands. For instance, they facilitate active dialogue between brands, suppliers, and trade unions on systemic issues such as GBVH, which helps brands identify location-specific risks that are likely relevant at other suppliers. In turn, the dialogue facilitates more cooperative remediation of violations and how to appropriately prioritise them (based on direct input from workers’ representatives). These direct agreements may offer an independent grievance mechanism, whereby trade unions can file a complaint directly to the brand. Such agreements directly bring together stakeholders from across the supply chain to facilitate learning and better understand each other’s unique challenges.

Fair Wear applauds this initiative and appreciates the opportunity we have had to provide feedback at the early stages of the proposal. We look forward to working with member brands and stakeholders across the industry to replicate this model more broadly.