Business Times

“End of the road for the apparel industry?”

Right of Reply

The following article has been sent by Anton Marcus, Joint Secretary – Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees' Union, in response to last week’s letter under the above heading which was critical of his union:

“We are for the apparel industry with decent labour practices!”
Sri Lanka is a classic “case” to study how wheeler-dealers dictate terms in dismantling decent and ethical business, demanding de-regulation of labour laws in the name of economic growth. The letter sent to last week's (May 20) Sunday Times and published in its Business section titled “End of the Road for the apparel industry?”, under the name of a writer Suranga Senarath, reflects such ranting.

It is not the end of the road for the apparel industry, as writer Senarath wants to picture the sector in scaring people. But the industry is certainly heading towards a cul-de-sac in terms of its subtle worker rights exploitations and stifling of basic workplace freedoms with the use of its political influence. In spite of the pompous PR ploys and snobbish profiling of the industry, the international consumer groups, brands, labels, global rights bodies, are now seeing the real picture in clear perspective. The 2012 London Olympics have only intensified exposing the exploitation and violation of international norms and brought it to the international attention. Senarath's letter only shows how scared they are of such exposures.

In today’s context, with the advent of globalisation, both capital as well as labour has grown into global forces and they are no more actors confined to national territories that can be manipulated or controlled with local political influence. It’s a pity the industry has not matured to realise that we live and run businesses today in a completely different playing field. We need to engage the crux of the problem. We have to be honest in admitting and engaging issues. This can no longer be replaced with hefty political investments of various sorts.

The reluctance of the apparel industry to engage issues genuinely is amply demonstrated by the unfounded and baseless argument advanced by writer Senarath, that companies are being pressurised by NGOs and other international unions to recognise one single union, namely our union, the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees’ Union (FTZ&GSEU) as the bargaining agent. He also says, this pressure leaves the Department of Labour, helpless.

The law on union recognition in Sri Lanka is very clear. One can insist on the recognition of a union as a bargaining agent, only if that union commands 40 % or more workers in a workplace. If the writer is in possession of any information to the contrary, it should be brought to the attention of the department as such pressures amount to intimidating the enforcement of local labour laws. There is no truth in his claim and never has such an issue ever been raised at the labour ministry tripartite forum, the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC), in which the apparel sector apex body Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) is also represented. The fact remains, big players wielding political influence in the apparel sector are determined to keep unions out of reach of workers, despite trade unions satisfying requirements of the union recognition law.

This has been time and again raised at the NLAC and at various tripartite forums. The supervisory bodies of the ILO too have identified this as a key problem that needs to be addressed. These are facts on record known to JAAF and not unfounded empty rhetoric.

The reality is that the Department of Labour is helpless in the face of the political might of the industry and is unable to enforce the law. A string of evidence can be produced in support of this. The 2012 Olympic Games Play Fair research report released in London pinpoints specific instances of sheer disregard for local labour laws, its enforcement and flouting the authority of the labour regime with impunity by the apparel industry. Neither the producers accused in this London report nor JAAF has responded to date to this London, “Olympics Play Fair Campaign” with credible counter evidence. This proves the hollowness of the industry’s argument and its guilt.

The writer in trying to justify his stance against union activities, says a company that had been in operation for 15 years is being pressurised through buyers and “one of the demands made is to reinstate three workers who have already resigned from the service many months ago on the basis that they resigned on account of 'Union victimization'.” What he is shy of telling is that the issue runs beyond three re-instatements, with this company resorting to manhandling of union activists within the factory itself and violating all guidelines set by the Commissioner of Labour holding a workers' referendum, with both the Labour Department and the BOI dragging their feet without taking any steps to stop the factory management from behaving like management thugs. Not only the labour administration, even the police are helpless.

In such a context, the unions have no option other than to mobilise international solidarity, to utilise complaints mechanisms of brands, labels, vendor codes, human rights bodies, etc. None of these bodies will step in unless there is an evidence-based credible prima facie case. It appears the major thrust is from buyers, brands and labels. These are business groups and not labour rights advocates. They step in because the practices of the local apparel industry are seriously endangering the credibility and image of their international brands and labels.

The writer has also got it completely wrong on ILO Convention No.87 on Freedom of Association. The Convention deals with the right of workers to choose their organisation and not that of factory owners. Employees' Councils do not meet the requirement of freedom of association as guaranteed by ILO Convention No.87. The ILO supervisory bodies have clearly ruled employees' councils out, as not conforming to standards of freedom of association. It would be interesting to see if JAAF dares to confront the Play Fair campaign with the strange notion taken up by the writer. To put it in plain language the apparel industry and the JAAF does not want to deal with legitimate, independent and non-party trade unions.

In July, 2006 the JAAF sought to unfairly stifle a union action of port workers through a Supreme Court action. Subsequently several unions challenged JAAF’s court action before the quasi-judicial body of the ILO. Finally, the ILO Governing body adopted that JAAF’s judicial action restricting the action of port workers is contrary to the principles of freedom of association and collective bargaining (Decision of the ILO Governing body Committee on Freedom of Association Case No.2519). JAAF as the apparel industry's apex body will have to make a public statement expressing willingness to accept and respect the conclusions of the ILO CFA Case No.2519, if it wants to gain respect and credibility.

The writer claims, Sri Lanka is the only country, which has used legislation to make collective bargaining mandatory. He is a total stranger to the field of industrial relations. Union certification laws making collective bargaining mandatory are prevalent in the USA, Europe and in many Asian nations. It should be stated the union certification threshold in several countries is less than 40 %, unlike in Sri Lanka and in most instances polls have to be conducted within two to three weeks of the union making the claim. Despite Sri Lanka, having a union recognition law for the last 12 years only one company has entered into collective agreements with unions in the apparel sector.

Writer Senarath also claims, the union certification law was brought based on political pressure. The origin of this law also shows another determined refusal to recognise unions in the apparel industry. A case was filed before the ILO quasi-judicial body in 1991 against this injustice (ILO Governing body Committee on Freedom of Association Case No.1621) by several unions. The law was adopted by the government in keeping with Sri Lanka’s compliance obligations arising out of ratification of ILO Conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining as highlighted in the said case.
The obstinate attitude of the apparel industry towards freedom of association and the absence of legal provisions for such a process was the precise reason that prompted the ILO governing body committee to adopt a decision to urge the government to have specific laws to make union recognition, possible. This was strictly a requirement of the ILO. Hence, over a period of time, several rounds of formal communications took place between the government and the ILO supervisory bodies, in formulating the law. There was no political pressure from any quarter as claimed.

The claim of the writer that “these very unions which wanted such legislation are criticizing this legislation and wish to have amendments to same stating that it needs more teeth” needs correction. In reality at the time of adopting the law some of the penal provisions of the law were dropped at the behest of employer pressure. Hence, there is no argument it needs to be further strengthened and some legal deficiencies rectified to make it effective. We never see a reason to repeal this important piece of legislation and the writer (and JAAF too) could be rest assured, workers will never let it happen.
One can argue, that factories have moved to neighbouring countries to avoid compliance pressures and respect for universally recognised workplace freedoms.

One should also not forget as long as you produce for international brands and labels, compliance pressure for sure will keep following you. The country needs a sustainable industrial relations strategy that is genuinely based on respect for universally recognised workplace freedoms that are benchmarked by the ILO. Depending on political influence to subdue the labour administration process and camouflaging the truth, is a tool of the bygone era. We and the world have come a long way since then. Unions and employers need to engage genuinely. We hope JAAF would wake up to this reality and move the apparel industry out of the present obsolete and archaic human relations engagement theory that is keeping them constantly on the run. Labour rights violators can run, but cannot hide.”

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