Data cast doubt on garment workers’ freedom of association – Sourcing Journal

Private regulation of labor practices in global supply chains does not work, by and large.

This was the first line of data insights we’ve shared in previous Sourcing Journal columns. However, the situation regarding freedom of association (FOA) and collective bargaining (CB) is puzzling. On the one hand, union data and case studies suggest that workers in fashion supply chains are rarely represented by unions and are generally not covered by collective agreements. On the other hand, social audit data shows that the number of violations of the right to freedom of association is generally very low, suggesting that these rights are rarely violated. What could explain this disconnect?

According to one theory, social audits are generally unable to detect whether factory management is actively thwarting workers’ attempts to form unions for the purpose of collective bargaining. Audits are generally of very short duration. Only two days, typically, for a large factory and auditors can interview selected workers for an hour inside the factory where the workers are under the watchful eyes of management and could potentially have been trained to provide the answers desired. Auditors rarely visit workers in their homes where they may be more open about the real situation in the factory.

New research from our Cornell New Conversations Project (NCP) also suggests an alternative explanation.

NCP researchers argue that supplier factories engage in token compliance by adopting required structures, such as unions and collective bargaining, but do not practice substantive compliance in their day-to-day operations, which reduces the ability of workers to exercise these rights. This explains why relatively few violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining are found, but also explains why bargaining in good faith between organized workers and their employers is quite rare in garment factories. Suppliers and their buyers thus form a matching pair. Brands and retailers tout their commitments to freedom of association, but in the three main garment-producing countries, organizing workers is either illegal – in China and Vietnam – or extremely difficult as in Bangladesh.

The argument is supported by a detailed statistical analysis of breach data from three major Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs). These are Better Work (a program of the ILO), the Fair Wear Foundation, which has many small and medium-sized European brands as members, and the Fair Labor Association, which has many large global brands. The three MSIs provide detailed information from audits on the various ways in which freedom of association and collective bargaining have been violated. For example, around 64% of Better Work factories have unions and 4% appear to be represented by a collective agreement. These are remarkably high rates for garment factories. In these factories, reports of gross violations of organizing and bargaining rights (such as the dismissal of union activists) were rare.

On the other hand, there were daily substantial violations of other rights to organize and collective bargaining, in a way that prevented workers from making their voices heard, even when there was a union or an agreement on their workplace. These include workers not being informed about the collective agreement, management not enforcing the terms of the agreement, management interference in union elections, and workers on safety committees and health, discrimination against union activists, failure to bargain in good faith, failure to attend social dialogue meetings, no written records of union-management meetings, the union has not no office or free time for union business and violations of the right to strike.

In summary, the picture from all three data sources indicates some token compliance with required freedom of association and collective bargaining structures such as unions and collective bargaining, but substantive non-compliance in a way that undermines the ability of workers to make their voices heard. . In other words, there is respect for the letter of the law but not the spirit.

More importantly, statistical analysis of data on violations shows that, first, when substantial non-compliance with freedom of association and collective bargaining requirements is high, violations of all labor issues are also high. And substantial non-compliance greatly reduces the effect of unions and collective agreements on overall compliance. The fact that these results are found in the most “progressive” MSIs is worrying. If there is token compliance and substantial non-compliance in these progressive MSIs, substantial non-compliance is likely to be much worse in other MSIs and in supply chains more generally.

Three important implications for global buyers are clear here. First, their obligation to ensure that suppliers have substantially complied with codes of conduct on freedom of association and collective bargaining in their day-to-day operations is not being met. Instead, fashion brands and retailers as a whole tolerate simply adopting the structures necessary to pass the audit and maintain order flow.

So what should they do?

Buyers – and the governments they work with – must educate workers about their freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, as an essential first step. And perhaps most importantly, buyers must help create space for workers to exercise these rights. This means sending clear signals to suppliers that workers’ organizing and bargaining rights are key procurement criteria. But how many procurement strategies include a filter or place significant value on independent unions and meaningful collective bargaining? Very, very little. Without it, there will be no change and violations of core labor standards will continue.

Second, buyers who ignore or fail to detect these violations are leaving money on the table. Our analysis of Better Work data shows that compliance is highest in supplier factories when there is both an active union and an appropriate collective bargaining agreement in place. Compliance was lowest when only one of these institutions was present and lowest when none were present.

A third implication for buyers is higher regulatory risk. European Union regulators crafting the rules to accompany recent mandatory due diligence legislation will be pressured to craft rules that go beyond token compliance to also include material non-compliance.

We’re sharing new insights and discussing these questions in depth at the New Conversations Project conference in New York on June 16. Click here to view the agenda and register.

Andrew B. Reiter