Fair Wear brings unions and suppliers together in North India

[11 December, 2019] It’s no secret that the word ‘union’ often strikes fear into the hearts of employers. Fair or not, there is a long-standing historical tension globally between unions and employers, which often creates a gap between the two groups and prevents collaboration. But creating a better understanding of one another and dispelling these fears is key in order to promote social dialogue and strong industrial relations in the garment industry.

So, on November 19th in New Delhi, India, Fair Wear brought together over 30 representatives of suppliers and brands to learn more about social dialogue and to hear from union officials and factory management who have successfully worked together in India.

As one of Fair Wear’s three focus areas under the Strategic Partnership for Garment Supply Chain Transformation, social dialogue is the process by worker representatives and employers to share, discuss, and negotiate on the conditions of work. Workers are best represented by independent trade unions, who are legally protected and can negotiate on behalf of workers. In India however, trade union density is very low; currently only 13% of all employees are union members (ILOSTAT) and in the garment industry this is less than 5% (Fair Wear India Country Study 2019). In the Dehli NCR region, there are no known collective bargaining agreements covering workers in the garment industry. So, although the Indian national laws protect the rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining, in practice these rights are not being actualised.

The supplier seminar began with a sense of trepidation; the goal of the day was, after all, to ultimately have suppliers open their doors to unions and engage in social dialogue, which is no small task. Nervousness was inevitable. Suhasini Singh, Fair Wear’s India Country Manager, asked participants to be open and honest in the discussions throughout the day, including to share any questions, fears or opinions, ensuring everyone that it was a safe space for discussion. After a short review of Fair Wear’s work and the principles and goals of social dialogue, participants were asked if they currently engaged with unions at any of their factories. The room’s silence said it all: no factories currently worked together with unions.

As the discussion got going, many supplier representatives started sharing their apprehensions: unions would demand higher wages for workers, which suppliers could not afford to pay unless buyers raised their prices; if unions encouraged strikes then suppliers’productivity would go down and they may lose customers; unions might go to the international media with negative stories, which ultimately could hurt not only the supplier but the Indian garment industry as a whole. Although these fears may have valid roots, through discussion participants began to see that through Fair Wear’s supply chain approach, and through the process of social dialogue itself, these problems could be mitigated. Fair Wear member brands not only have a responsibility but have also made a commitment to support the payment of living wages in their factories, which means that suppliers should be able to have open discussions and negotiations with them if wages are raised and brands need to adjust their pricing. Fair Wear’s labour minute costing tool provides a tool for brands and suppliers to work together to ensure brands are paying enough to cover negotiated wages. Although workers have the right to strike, it is also generally only used as a last resort for workers, when their voices and grievances cannot be heard in any other way. Having a process for social dialogue already in place, means that workers and unions would already have a channel to discuss their grievances with management, likely resulting in less strikes. And that although indeed there is often international media attention for negative working situations in garment producing countries, there is also an opportunity to set an example for the industry and garner positive coverage as well, such as the cooperation between one unit of Shahi Exports and the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU) in Bangalore, which received international attention and ultimately positive recognition. Participants were beginning to share and understand that the benefits of social dialogue aren’t just for the workers, but also for suppliers themselves.

Ultimately, the day provided a chance for suppliers and brands to hear directly from union representatives and another supplier who had begun the process of social dialogue and could share what it was really like, and if indeed there had been any benefits. The General Manager, Code of Conduct from Texport Industries Mr. S.W.H Zaidi, along with Karnataka Garment Workers Union President Rathi K.G and research and communication officer for the union, Gangambika G.S, joined Ms. Singh in a talk-show style chat to share, without restraint, their process and feelings on engaging with one another.

Following reports of violence and harassment at the factory in early 2019 which went unanswered by management, workers became fed up and walked out, stopping all work at the 800 person factory. One of the aggrieved workers happened to have the contact of a member of Karnataka Garment Workers Union. When contacted, the union member immediately responded and reached out to factory management.In a couple of days’ time the news of this case was captured by media and brand got involved as well. For their part, top management at Texport Industries had been unaware of the reports of harassment and were willing to immediately start discussions to see what could be done. Following assurances by the top management that they were open to listening and working with the union, meetings began between supplier and union leaders.

Through the process of social dialogue, the two groups began to understand each other better. Factory management realised that the union has an important role as a catalyst for change; that unions can convey messages to workers from management more effectively because the workers listen to the union leaders more than management, which makes communication easier. And conversely, workers more openly share information with the unions who can then share that with management, allowing managers to understand the workers need even more. After engaging in this process Mr. Zaidi realised that, ‘Everything can be settled through dialogue.’

Everything can be settled through dialogue.

In June, factory management and union leaders signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which outlined their commitment to continue engaging in dialogue with one another. Now factory management and the union leaders meet regularly, preparing an agenda and discussion points in advance so that everyone can properly prepare and a fruitful discussion can take place. They do not always agree on issues, but both parties understand the need to and benefit of having open dialogue and listening to one another.

Since the MOU was signed, the union president Ms. Rathi K.G says that, ‘Workers have reported better respect at the factory.’ With regular dialogue happening, the union and management can now start working proactively on issues that affect them both, rather than waiting for an issue or grievance to be raised. Social dialogue has allowed both groups to start raising important issues, such as productivity, working hours and safety with one another, to be discussed and negotiated on jointly.

Workers have reported better respect at the factory.

Participants of the seminar asked many questions to the panellists and shared their concerns about what the process might look like at their own factories. Ultimately the message from the panellists was clear: the positive benefits and learning have fairly outweighed their initial fears. Participants acknowledged that they would like to see improvements in communication with workers in their factories, and that this approach seemed positive.

The day ended on a high note, with many suppliers and brands asking for more sessions such as these which give them the opportunity to learn and hear from one another and dispel fears they may have. With participants travelling from as far away as Mumbai to join, the overwhelming response was that the day was full of learning and hope for a way forward for unions and suppliers to work together more fruitfully in the future.

Fair Wear would like to give a big thanks to Mr. Zaidi, Ms. Rathi K.G, and Ms. Gangambika G.S for sharing so openly their process and challenges and being a model for improved social dialogue in the garment industry in India. Also, to all participants for being willing to engage in difficult conversations and break down long-standing barriers in order to improve conditions for all at the workplace.

Read more about Fair Wear’s work on social dialogue.