Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, international garment brands have made promises to do their part to ensure workers in the global supply chain are protected, but consecutive waves of infections and production stoppages in India have left countless workers without their full wages.
In Bangalore, a union has successfully initiated a new round of collective bargaining with Shahi Group, India’s largest garment exporter, after an initial round in July 2021. The Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU) proposed that the three main parties in the global supply chain - workers, suppliers and international brands - should work together and agree to take on a fair share in these unprecedented times. In other words, it should not be the workers alone who bear all of the losses of the unprecedented pandemic.
On the other side of the bargaining table, Shahi Group stressed that, as a result of the purchasing prices dictated by the international brands, their profit margin is too thin for the manufacturer to pay workers full wages during the lockdown periods.
KOOGU then invited eight of the international brands supplied by Shahi, and other major manufacturers in the Karnataka region, to join in the ongoing bargaining process with workers. If the purchasing prices are set too low, as Shahi pointed out, then the brands have an inescapable responsibility to join the negotiations, the union says.
In the letter to Abercrombie & Fitch, Benetton, Carhartt, Columbia, Decathlon, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Vans, KOOGU raised the ILO global "Call to Action," which involves a range of stakeholders joining to solve ongoing problems in the garment industry that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
KOOGU wrote, “We consider this coming together of all key stakeholders - international brands, suppliers, trade unions and governments - with a resolve to take concrete steps to protect the income and livelihoods of the workers who have worked hard for the industry and also to save the industry itself, as highly farsighted, invaluable and absolutely necessary at this time.”
Workers in Bangalore attend a union meeting. CLB file photo.
Among the eight international brands KOOGU contacted, only three - Carhartt, Decathlon and H&M - responded.
Carhartt replied that it encouraged all business partners to make payments “according to local laws,” stopping short of committing to participate in negotiations. Yet on its website, Carhartt describes its social responsibility in a special Covid-19 message: "Unpredictable times can’t change our purpose. From the very beginning, Carhartt has existed to serve and protect the hardworking people. That’s something that will never change."
Decathlon defended its position - saying that the brand had not cancelled or delayed any standing orders - and then emphasised that the dispute in Bangalore should be resolved between the employer and the employee. Decathlon stated that it is outside its purview to make any comments on the negotiations. However, Decathlon has posted a public statement on pandemic response, writing, "The shared sense of responsibility from everyone is what will help the most in dealing with COVID-19, and Decathlon is dedicated to doing the right thing to protect the well-being of our communities.”
H&M emphasised in its response to KOOGU that it was committed to making timely payments and consistent orders to ensure steady cash flow and business continuity for their suppliers. In addition to stressing compliance with local laws, H&M added that it was willing to establish a platform to find an appropriate solution in this situation.
H&M is one of the international brands that have signed the ILO Covid-19 Call to Action and has made this commitment public on its website: "The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for better social security for garment industry workers. We are working with the ILO Call to Action, a coalition of more than 125 brands who have come together to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic and build a stronger industry for the long term.”
The fact that only three brands responded and that none of them would directly join in the negotiations between KOOGU and Shahi shows that despite the corporate social responsibility commitments to the general public and consumers, international brands are reluctant to incur responsibility when workers take initiative to call on these brands to fulfill their promises.
The Workers Rights Consortium uncovered in December 2021 that over 1,000 garment factories in the Bangalore area and the state of Karnataka “are continuing to violate [India’s] minimum wage laws.” Some manufacturers packaged the wages as “loans” or “advances,” arguing they were forced to do so to stay afloat, otherwise they would have to lay off workers altogether.
The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network stressed earlier in 2021 that “brands are the primary profit accumulators in the garment supply chain, dictating what prices are being paid while barely abiding by minimum wage standards.”
KOOGU was founded in 2009 in response to the drastic changes in the local garment industry in the 2000s, when major international brands began placing their orders with manufacturers in the southern state of Karnataka. The union evolved from its early role raising workers’ rights awareness among a predominantly female workforce - who are often subject to sexual harassment and violence - and exposing blatant workplace abuses, to providing individual legal aid when disputes occurred.
Through the experience gained in over a decade of work, KOOGU believes that organising workers to engage management in collective bargaining is the ultimate solution to the otherwise perpetual disregard of workers’ dignity.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the world’s most vulnerable in the Global South. Collective bargaining is one path towards finding a mutually agreeable solution for stakeholders, but the absence of any major party at the table will make it impossible to arrive at a satisfying resolution.
International brands have so far chosen to look away, but the workers and the supplier in India have stayed at the bargaining table because they know they have to work with each other on a daily basis in a labour relationship.
On 23 December 2021, KOOGU and Shahi Group sat down once again at the table. In a spirit of good faith in collective bargaining and to ensure the continuation of the process, both parties discussed and agreed on procedural rules presented by the union, including matters such as the frequency and length of sessions, alternated chairing of sessions, length of each party’s interventions, recording of meeting minutes and mutual communication.
Agreeing on non-monetary issues was a strong start, but eventually the core demands from workers - non-payment of salaries during the lockdown and, more importantly, decent wages - will be on the bargaining table. KOOGU and Shahi have agreed to reconvene on 28 January 2022.
The ongoing collective bargaining process between KOOGU and Shahi Group sets a unique precedent in India and perhaps for the entire global supply chain. The union and the supplier have managed to resume the dialogue under the exceptionally difficult circumstances of the pandemic. However, the international brands, which have been taking the largest share of the profits in better times, continue to be absent. Ignoring the calls issued by the union that represents vulnerable workers risks aggravating persistent inequalities in the global supply chain.