A worldwide network of solidarity

On this page, three activists and worker organizers from India, Indonesia and Pakistan tell about their work, their struggles and how this relates to the network of the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Interested in more stories? There are interviews with activists from Cambodia as well, and garment workers from Bangladesh

Next fight: for a living wage

Prathiba R.


“The factories know we have international contacts. So they listen to us, at least for a little bitt.” Prathibha R. of the Indian Garment and Textile Workers Union tells about awareness raising among factories and workers.

Years ago Prathibha R. worked in a garment factory as an assistant in the Human Resources department. “I saw the working conditions, knew the law regulations and understood it would be difficult to improve the situation”, she explains from Bangalore.

Prathibha and a colleague formed a trade union - and were immediately dismissed by their employer. In 2011 Prathibha was elected vice-president of the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU). As GATWU's funding is under pressure, the job is currently an honorary one.

Gate meetings

The high turnover among the garment workforce in India is just one of the many challenges GATWU is facing. “People come from the agricultural fields to the factory. They don't know about their rights.” GATWU representatives try to change this with factory gate meetings, where they distribute flyers to workers leaving the premises. The union also offers training, and collaborates with other civic organisations to support the workers on issues of domestic violence and education for their children.

But what is the factories’ response towards these workers’ representatives? “Almost all the garment factories know us by now. And they know we have international contacts with solidarity groups and brands. So they listen to us, at least for a little bit.”

One of the cases GATWU and the Clean Clothes Campaign worked on together was the 'dearness allowance' for workers at Gokaldas. The company nullified this benefit, which is intended to compensate for cost of living increases, by lowering other benefits for part of their workforce.

Dearness allowance

“Our first job was to raise awareness about the dearness allowance; a difficult and technical subject. We distributed flyers asking workers to contact us if they had not received the allowance. We started writing to factories in 2010, and three years later all the major manufacturers had paid. Except for Gokaldas. When we did not receive a response to further letters, we contacted the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Workers Rights Consortium. We still did not hear from the company itself. But then Adidas and H&M contacted us. The case was taken to the Labour Commissioner, who responded positively towards our work.”

Precedent

“In the end, we learnt from Adidas that Gokaldas had finally agreed to pay the allowance”, Prathibha continues. By January 2014, all the workers had been paid what they were entitled to. “If we hadn’t made a noise about this case, it would have set a precedent for not paying the dearness allowance”, Prathibha says. “International support from CCC and WRC has been essential, because the fashion brands know them and are paying attention to their words. Consumer protests have helped a lot. In the past, they have made clear that child labour is not acceptable. Our next fight is for workers to actually earn a living wage.”

see also:


the Gokaldas case

Being close to the workers

Emelia Yanti


The first time Emelia Yanti got involved in worker organising, was during a spontaneous strike in 1995. “We had not been paid for four months by our employer, and demanded our salaries,” Emelia remembers. “Small victories that we won at the time, motivated me to fitgh more.”

She began to organise study groups in Indonesian garment factories. These groups would later evolve to be factory level trade unions.

Nowadays, Emelia is the secretary general of the national trade union GSBI. “I don't really like to sit behind a desk – I prefer to be with the workers and engage in campaigns with them. I spend practically all my time to meet and discuss with fellow workers, and it's wonderful to be close to them.”

Awareness

The secretary general is hoping for increased awareness about working conditions in the garment and sportswear industry among Western consumers:  “Millions of hands in the producing countries are making all these clothes. A consumer can be very comfortable with the products he or she is wearing, and they might be prepared to buy expensive clothes. But often they don't know that behind the brand there's sweat, tears and even blood of the workers in various countries who work and live in poor conditions, and are oppressed when they stand up for their rights.”

In Indonesia, the law prohibits anti-union discrimination by employers, but enforcement is weak. Therefore the Freedom of Association protocol is of great importance. It has been negotiated since 2009 and was signed two years later. With the protocol, the signatories affirm their commitment to freedom of association.

“In this early stage, the protocol still has its weaknesses,” Emelia thinks. “For example, the scope of the protocol is limited to supplier companies – and only the suppliers who signed the protocol. Furthermore, buying companies are rather slowly in disseminating the protocol to their other supplier companies.
But even though factory management is olny willing to implement the protocol in stages, it can still improve a lot for the union activities of the workers,” Emelia concludes.

see also:

Indonesian Freedom of Association protocol

A voice from Pakistan

Nasir Mansoor


“International solidarity is the only way for us. It will strengthen the labour rights movement in Pakistan.” Nasir Mansoor explains why.

Educated as a marine engineer, Nasir Mansoor, 52, was inspired by the trade union at the shipyard where he was trained. “Not only were they lead by a woman, they were also the most powerful opponent of the religious military regime at the time.” Mansoor joined the student wing of the movement, and went on to become one of its leaders. He later joined the newly formed Pakistani National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), and has been its deputy general secretary since 2004.

Risking their lives

The context from which the NTUF works on labour rights with the Clean Clothes Campaign is a difficult one. “In the private industrial sectors such as the garment industry, 95% of the workers have no written contract at all. They cannot prove their relationship with the employer, and therefore have no access to legal remedies to secure  their rights.” According to Mansoor, the situation in the textile and garment industry is even worse than in other sectors represented within NTUF. “From the cotton fields to the end product: people work like slaves.”

But the labour issues are not only about long days, low pay, lack of social security and the right to organise. “In 2012 we had the big fire at the Ali Enterprise factory in Karachi, in which 286 people perished. The situation is the same in every factory. Workers risk their life every day working in these unsafe factories next to boilers or with chemicals. The garment factories are just like a death trap. The vast majority of these factories are not even registered and are operating illegally.”

EU trade agreement

Although Pakistan has signed 38 ILO Conventions  on workers' rights, not a single one of them is implemented on the ground, says Mansoor. Nevertheless, the European Union has granted Pakistan a new preferential trade status (known as GSP+) as of January 2014, with tax waivers for products made in Pakistan. The trade agreement is expected to result in over a million new jobs in Pakistan.

The GSP+ Agreement does include requirements on human rights, labour issues and corporate responsibility. “But the trade unions were never consulted about the agreement”, says Mansoor. “I see no evidence that these requirements are going to be monitored and implemented.” The NTUF had invited EU representatives in Pakistan to a big conference on labour rights in April 2014, but did not get a response. “Instead they chose to sponsor the government of Punjab to organise a separate conference on labour in South Asia”, says Mansoor with regret.

Solidarity

Meanwhile, the trade unions are under pressure from government and industry not to expose labour problems, as this would damage the image of their country. In Pakistan, with its long history of military regimes, religious fundamentalism and on the verge of civil war, local trade unions could hardly make any impact without the support of international solidarity groups.

“Our government is much more concerned about international reactions than about the opinions of Pakistani labour unions. International solidarity is the only reason why they are sparing us – without it we would be crushed. But when there is a voice both from Pakistan and from international groups, it will make some impact. This solidarity will strengthen the labour rights movement in Pakistan.”

see also:


Ali Enterprise: Fire victims not yet fully compensated