Fashion: Freedom of Association is violated

Workers’ right to organise for decent work and a living wage are fundamental to advances for the millions of women workers making our clothes and shoes for poverty wages. This right has become even more important under the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews with trade union leaders and survey of union activists and labour advocates in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, shows that the situation for freedom of association and collective bargaining has got worse since the pandemic. Also, half of the respondents revealed an increase in discrimination, intimidation, threats and harassment of trade union members.


Business & Human Rights Resource Center interviewed 24 trade union leaders and surveyed 124 union activists and labour advocates in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, with nearly two thirds (61%) of survey respondents reporting the situation for freedom of association and collective bargaining has “got worse” since the pandemic. Almost half (48%) of respondents revealed an increase in discrimination, intimidation, threats and harassment of trade union members.


This report highlights allegations of union-busting and related abuse at 13 factories. These factories supply, or have recently supplied, at least 15 global fashion brands and retailers, including adidas, Asda, Benetton Group, BESTSELLER, C&A, Sainsbury’s, ETAM, H&M, HUGO BOSS, J.Crew, OVS SpA, Mango, Next, Primark and Under Armour. Despite making policy commitments to support freedom of association across their supply chains, with some even signing Global Framework Agreements with union federations, there remains a huge gap between policy and practice. This has left many fashion brands complicit in restrictions on freedom of association and resulting abuses.


The report outlines how union leaders continue to face discrimination, threats, violence, false charges and arrests, with factories persistently using COVID-19 as a pretext for these attacks and other attempts to suppress organising efforts and suspend collective bargaining agreements. The suppression of trade union rights that spiked in the early days of the pandemic is today becoming the norm, with devastating impacts for garment workers. Without a collective voice and protection, women workers face declining wages, more precarious work, longer hours, and abuse and harassment on the factory floor.


Abuses included:

  • Almost a third (30%) of survey respondents reported an increase in gender-based violence and harassment as a result of the restrictions on trade union rights.

  • An increase in wage and severance theft as a result of trade union restrictions was reported by over half (58%) of survey respondents.

  • Over a quarter (27%) reported an increase in violence against trade union leaders.

It is clear voluntary approaches are failing; brands, despite being made aware of attacks on freedom of association and collective bargaining in their supply chains, have failed to implement effective change. There is an urgent need for governments to enact mandatory due diligence legislation and for brands to sign up to enforceable agreements with trade unions across their supply chain.


These findings demonstrate the need for governments, brands and suppliers to take action to ensure the right to freedom of association is protected across supply chains. They clearly show the need for due diligence beyond social auditing, proactive brand engagement with suppliers in order to protect freedom of association, and the introduction of mandatory human rights due diligence frameworks. Brands and suppliers are encouraged to enter good-faith dialogue with workers and their representatives through collective bargaining and binding agreements between key stakeholders.



Source: Business & Human Rights Resource Center: Unpicked, fashion and freedom of association. October 2022