Sustainability Issues

The Issues: Freedom of Association & Right to Collective Bargaining

For any fashion company seeking to achieve a positive social impact on their operations and supply chains including a living wage, the empowerment and involvement of workers’ themselves can be critical to achieving sustainable and lasting progress.

The benefits of effective collective bargaining

The fundamental right of workers to freedom of association, to form organisations of their own choosing, to join trade unions, and to bargain collectively for their wages are one of the core principles of the International Labour Organization, the United Nations agency that promotes decent work for all women and men.

Effective worker organisation and representation can play a valuable role in building an overall positive business environment. It supports effective health and safety practices, skills and training programmes, as well as providing a clear platform for negotiations on pay and working conditions, or in resolving workplace disputes. For example, research by H&M showed that the presence of trade unions in factories positively affected wages by an average of 5.5 percent.

The suppression of workers rights

However, in many of the leading countries supplying the fashion industry such as China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and India, workers’ rights to organise are routinely suppressed. 

  • In Bangladesh, protests to improve pay in garment factories in Dhaka’s Ashulia industrial area led to at least 1,500 workers being fired, trade union office closures and detention of trade union officials in 20171.
  • In 2014, the severity of repression of trade unions in Cambodia’s garment industry triggered a joint letter of protest to the Prime Minister by 30 global fashion brands and several trade unions2. 

Workers’ rights to organise are undermined when:

  • employers have refused to allow trade unions and workers’ rights organisations any on-site access to workers;
  • management have blocked the formal establishment of trade unions on their sites, or set up rival worker representation bodies over which they have more control;
  • workers have been unfairly punished, demoted or dismissed for participating in trade union activities, and therefore are fearful of forming or joining such organisations;
  • trade unions and their activities (especially rights to collective bargaining and strike action) have been repressed by state governments, with support or lobbying from the private sector.

The role of collective bargaining in achieving a living wage

It is widely accepted that collective bargaining in one piece of the puzzle needed to achieve a living wage. The emphasis being on a piece in the puzzle. Without wage benchmarks in place (an amount calculated to ensure that workers in that region can support themselves and their family whilst working a standard 48 hour week) it is impossible to know if any wage increases negotiated through collective bargaining  collective bargaining meet a living wage threshold.

One example of how collective bargaining in action is ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation), a multi-stakeholder initiative which brings together leading fashion brands and IndustriAll global trade union all working collaboratively to achieve a living wage. 

Take Action

Companies can support workers’ rights to organise by:

  • ensuring the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are enshrined at the heart of their own ethical codes and policies;
  • working with supply chain partners to ensure that an open attitude to the presence and activities of trade unions is being adopted;
  • supporting worker representatives in carrying out their roles, and ensure they are not discriminated against; 
  • working with partners (suppliers, industry partners, labour rights organisations) to find alternative mechanisms for effective worker representation and collective bargaining in places where the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are restricted by law.

For more information:

Ethical Trading Initiative guidance on freedom of association in company supply chains 

IndustriALL – the global trade union federation representing many garment and textile workers’ associations around the world

OECD Guidance for Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector – Module 6 on Trade Unions and Collective Bargaining

ITUC Global Rights Index 2017 – latest data on repression of workers’ rights and labour laws

Resources on trade unions in Cambodia and Bangladesh: Better Factories and Law at the Margins


1. Quadir, Serajul and Bhalla, Nita (2017) Big fashion brands pull out of Bangladesh garment summit over worker rights concerns, Reuters, 22 February

2. Joint Letter to the Cambodian Prime Minister (2014) Industriall Union Campaign, 14 January

3. Remi Edwards, Tom Hunt & Genevieve LeBaron (2019) Corporate Commitments to Living Wages in the Garment Industry. SPERI & University of Sheffield

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