Skip to main content

‘They wanted to get rid of the union for a long time – now they’re using Covid-19 as an excuse’

TONY BURKE of Unite reveals how coronavirus is being used to break unions in Asian garment industries – leaving workers high and dry

THE Covid-19 pandemic has seen orders worth billions of dollars cancelled across India, China, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar and garment workers say that the pandemic is being used to break union organising.

The pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of workers jobless in some of Asia’s poorest countries and employers are now targeting workers who have been fighting for higher pay and safe working conditions.

In southern India’s Karnataka state, where 20 per cent of India’s garment industry is based, one union leader called Padma has protested outside the Euro Clothing Company against its closure since June. 

She was among a 1,200-strong workforce who lost their jobs — 900 of them union members.

“I have sweated here for the past 10 years for 348 rupees ($4.60) a day,” she said. 

Padma was responsible for checking trousers, jackets and T-shirts bound for Swedish clothing giant H&M. 

The workshop’s parent company is Gokaldas, Karnataka’s oldest manufacturer, with more than 20 factories, but Padma’s workplace was the only Gokaldas plant which was unionised. 

“They wanted to get rid of the union for a long time, and now they’re using Covid-19 as an excuse,” Padma said, alleging that the workers were illegally laid off without notice.

Gautam Mody, general secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative, a union linked to the global manufacturing union federation IndustriALL, said the firm was “union-busting under the pretext of Covid. This sole factory where the majority of workers are union members.” 

H&M also buys garments from four other Gokaldas factories, according to Mody.

H&M say: “We are in close dialogue with both local and global trade unions as well as the supplier to help them resolve the conflict peacefully.”

In Bangladesh alone, more than 100,000 workers have been laid off, with about half the workers being union supporters and members, according to Rafiqul Islam Sujon, president of the Bangladesh Garments and Shilpo Sramik Federation, a workers’ rights group.

Jamie Davis of the Solidarity Centre, a workers’ rights group affiliated with the US union federation AFL-CIO, says the pandemic has offered “an opening for this tactic on a wide scale.”

“The big brands must make it clear that they will end the business relationship with a factory if the violations continue,” said Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium. 

“It is illegal to dismiss workers because of their union affiliation or to close a factory because it is unionised,” he said. 

“Such anti-retaliation laws exist in most countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar and India though they are, unfortunately, often not enforced.”

In Myanmar 298 workers were fired in May at the Rui Ning factory, which produces clothes for the likes of Spanish brand Zara. 

Unionised workers wrote an impassioned letter to Amancio Ortega, founder of the Inditex fashion group that owns Zara. 

“Surely a man of such riches would not need to profit from the global pandemic by smashing our unions,” it said.

Ortega is the sixth-richest man in the world, with a $62.8 billion fortune, according to Forbes. 

Inditex said it was aware of the labour disputes and cited its code of conduct, which “expressly forbids discrimination against workers’ representatives.”

Cambodian union representative Soy Sros protested at the dismissal of dozens of workers from a Superl factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. 

The Hong Kong-based company makes leather handbags for brands including Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Kate Spade.

Forty-eight hours later, she was arrested and charged with incitement. Sros was released 55 days later, but the charges still remain.

Another Cambodian workers’ leader, Pav Sina, said more than 2,000 members of his union had seen their contracts terminated. 

“In the past, factories couldn’t do this,” he said. “But Covid-19 has given them the opportunity.”

This article is based on news reports in the Economic Times. Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite.


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 3,821
We need:£ 14,179
24 Days remaining
Donate today