Collective bargaining agreements: an effective tool for worker led action

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C&A Foundation is committed to making improved working conditions and wages for every man and woman in the apparel industry a reality. We believe in the power of supply chain transparency through credible, accessible information for systemic change. Change in the industry, however, requires collective action at all levels. Our promise of making fashion a force for good is fuelled by workers rights. A shared vision of change among workers and management is critical for an effective supply chain. Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) allow for exactly that. The collective bargaining process is generally facilitated by trade unions and gives employees and management a platform to agree on what they need from each other.

“CBAs are a tool to bring in a culture of worker led social responsibility which levels the power dynamics inherent to the sector”, states Naureen Chowdhury, Senior Programme Manager, Labour Rights at C&A Foundation. 

That is why C&A Foundation commissioned a consultant to develop a process document- key lessons on collective bargaining from Bangladesh’s apparel sector, that captures the effectiveness of CBAs as a tool for worker empowerment and a responsible supply chain resulting in a more sustainable fashion industry. We recognise the importance of strengthening the knowledge base for stakeholders in the apparel industry to follow a transparent process of negotiation and representation of workers across the world. Key lessons from the study that serve as guiding principles to actualise a CBA are:

  1. A well-informed, knowledgeable Union Executive Committee is essential.
  2. The needs of the workers must be comprehensively understood.
  3. A strong working relationship with management must be built.
  4. The timing needs to be planned.
  5. All discussions must be formally documented.
  6. Every line in an agreement must be clearly written and has to be checked.
  7. Signatures should not be rushed.
  8. The process may take time. It should not be prolonged unnecessarily though.
  9. Behaviour is crucial, and a focus on solutions is essential.

Partners in action

Awaj Foundation has been leading the charge in awareness building initiatives to develop worker capacity to bargain collectively and unionise. As a result of these capacity building initiatives, the workers are more confident in articulating and prioritising their needs for a dialogue with management.  To date Awaji Foundation has negotiated several CBAs to improve the quality of lives for workers everywhere. And they continue to mentor and support agents of change like Bilkis Akhter, Union Leader, Natural Denims to strengthen the worker led movement. Bilkis has successfully formed a factory union and negotiated a CBA. She feels the CBA has given them a system to resolve the problem and ask for what is needed the most. She adds, “single voices are usually too quiet for big changes”.

Learning across borders

The lessons from the success of these CBAs can be replicated in many more factories in the coming years. It has already begun in Bengaluru, Karnataka with our partners FEDINA and their supported Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU). In 2016, they understood the need to adopt collective bargaining as a practice and approached three of the largest exporters and employers in the region. With support from C&A Foundation, China Labour Bulletin (CLB) and FEDINA have collaborated to establish and/or strengthen five worker centres with the goal of pursuing factory-level collective bargaining in the region. CLB staff and Chinese workers with first-hand experience of collective bargaining in China were able to help FEDINA and KOOGU staff coach Indian workers in developing their bargaining and organizing skills. This led to workers being organized, independently electing union representatives and gaining legitimate recognition from management. It has been a journey filled with growth through peaks and troughs. A KOOGU member shares, “after a lot of reflection, we have changed our attitude to not be easily provoked, to not show agitation and see the opportunity for change”.

We are confident that these lessons will inform our future endeavours that will harness the power of collective voices to amplify our actions to empower more workers.

The document is available to download here

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