Garment unions from across the world meet in Myanmar to share strategies

22.08.2017

Trade unionists from garment producing countries met on 14–18 August in Yangon, Myanmar, to discuss organizing in the supply chain and campaigning for a living wage.

Concluding three years of work on organizing in global supply chains and campaigning for living wages under two projects funded by German organization the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), participants from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa and Turkey, compared strategies and evaluated progress in an industry that is seen as synonymous with low wages, long working hours and sub-standard working conditions.

Welcoming the unionists to Myanmar, many of them for the first time, Maung Maung, President of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar, provided an update on discussions for setting the second minimum wage in the country. Myanmar’s first ever minimum wage was introduced in 2015 at 3,600 kyats/day (US$3.6). It is far from a living wage and unions are currently conducting wage research around the country, before putting forward new demands at the end of September.

Sharing successful strategies for organizing in the supply chain, participants from the Philippines spoke of the increased strength gained by using alliances.

Myanmar unionists stressed the importance of education:

“We meet workers in the streets and in tea shops, and teach them about their rights and the law even before the union in the workplace has been officially registered.”

Turkey counts 1,1 million workers in the textile and garment industry, and there is a need to educate workers on unions and collective bargaining agreements:

“Organizing is made additionally difficult as it is often linked to a big risk of dismissal.

Implementing global framework agreements

IndustriALL has signed global framework agreements (GFAs) with Inditex, H&M, Mizuno and Tchibo.

Talking about the implementation of the GFA with H&M in Cambodia, Christina Hajagos-Clausen, IndustriALL garment and textile director, presented the work of the national monitoring committees (NMC), set up in a number of countries as conflict solving mechanisms.

“The NMCs consist of three union representative and three H&M representatives, and they gives us a possibility to exchange concerns. The GFA has been instrumental in resolving conflicts in Myanmar and Pakistan.

“There is a shift in the supply chain, a move away from voluntary initiatives to functioning industrial relations.”

Creating a level playing field for wages

Campaigning for a living wage is a key goal of  IndustriALL. Many speakers talked about the inadequacy of garment worker wages and how difficult it is to negotiate higher wages when factories are being squeezed by their multinational brand customers.

IndustriALL assistant general secretary Jenny Holdcroft says that unions must look beyond the minimum wage and push for a new wage fixing mechanism that takes account of the way that brands contract with suppliers and the prices they pay.

The meeting was joined by Frank Hoffer, newly appointed Executive Director of the ACT initiative between IndustriALL and global brands who  spoke of how ACT aims to introduce industry collective bargaining linked to brand purchasing practices to garment supply chains.

 “The minimum wage does not take into account other wage-related factors like working hours, skills training and productivity. We need a system that lifts standards across the market and enables workers to enforce their own agrements.

“To achieve a living wage there is a need for higher wages to be set across the entire industry in order to prevent individual factories and brands from negotiating lower prices based on lower wages.”

While many of the countries represented at the workshop have a minimum wage, this is set at a level that does not enable workers to meet their basic needs, leaving them reliant on excessive overtime hours to supplement their wages. Having heard positive examples from South Africa, Sweden and Indonesia, the meeting concluded on the importance of making the case to employers and governments of the mutual benefits of introducing industry bargaining more widely in the garment sector.