1257 workers win back jobs in time of pandemic

The New Trade Union Initiative celebrates the extraordinary victory of the 1257 workers at Euro Clothing Company (ECC 2) of Gokaldas Exports (GE) who won back their jobs and gained recognition for their union, the NTUI affiliate, Garment and Textile Workers’ Union, after a determined eight month long struggle.

The overwhelmingly women workers at ECC2 in Srirangapatna, Karnataka, were illegally laid off on 8 June 2020, a week after they thwarted their management’s effort to remove machinery from the factory by stealth. The factory manufactured primarily for the global clothing giant H&M. As an affiliate of IndustriALL Global Union, GATWU sought to enforce H&M’s Global Framework Agreement (GFA) with IndustriALL with the understanding that in the global supply chain TNCs must bear responsibility for rights of their suppliers’ workers too.
Union busting – by Gokaldas and H&M

The lay-off was a premeditated attempt not just to dispossess the workers but rather to bust their union, which enjoyed a nearly three-quarters majority amongst the workers. Despite various circuitous means over many months, GE was unable to prove the legality of the lay-off even as H&M sought to wash its hands of these egregious workers’ rights violations claiming there existed multiple legal interpretations. The government of course looked away not willing to carry forward even its responsibility under law.

When the 56 day long workers sit-in at the factory proved impregnable, GE mobilised its managers to follow workers into their villages and even to their homes to break them away from the union. H&M, too, ‘independently’ sought to ‘interview’ workers through GE managers to ‘understand’ their conditions without providing any prior information to either the workers or their union.

Earning just the minimum wage, unable to hold out for four months into the pandemic enforced draconian lockdown, the overwhelming number of workers were compelled to accept retrenchment dues for their survival while they continued to charge GE with constructive dismissal and hold H&M to account for failing to stand up to its GFA and other publicly stated commitments to workers in their supply chain.

Solidarity Forever – For the Union makes Us Strong

From the very start, the struggle enjoyed the unflinching support of IndustriALL. IndustriALL sustained a persistent and dogged pressure on H&M and the other TNC buyers of GE. This was critical to ensure accountability in the supply chain. IndustriALL also drew on the energy of its other affiliates bringing worldwide solidarity to Srirangapatna including through a global day of action.

There were other moments of solidarity too that were critical. H&M workers at its stores in Germany, members of Ver.di, stood consistently behind the struggle bringing in pressure directly and through their works council.

Of course NTUI affiliates mobilised across the length and breadth of the country. Perhaps the most moving of these solidarity events was the one in Silchar, Assam where it will be a while before H&M has a presence. Let this be as reminder to TNC’s that there is resistance to them even where they are yet to reach.

As in every long drawn out fight there are times when the spirit does waver. Knowing that so many workers in so many countries supported the struggle was inspiration enough to go on.

Negotiating for Victory

Eight months has indeed been a very long time especially in the depths of the pandemic but finally GE came to an agreement with the union realising that otherwise the fire of the 1257 dispossessed workers would keep burning for justice.

The agreement, while accepting the closure of ECC2, secured jobs for all 1257 workers in GE’s other factories with continuity of employment and the provision of company paid transport to and from work. The agreement also grants GATWU recognition at GE factories where at least one in five workers is a union member.

H&M, however, stood apart from the negotiation. The final agreement displayed at best a weak commitment to its own GFA, taking no responsibility for the workers, employed by its suppliers, in its supply chain. H&M’s tangible support to ensure that the agreement is implemented to the full must now be demonstrable.

Coming in the midst of the pandemic, this agreement is of course an incredible achievement for the workers of ECC2 as they now have the opportunity to secure their livelihoods and restart their lives. It also marks an important advance in establishing the right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in the country when these rights are threatened by legislative attack. Securing the gains of this agreement and winning them for all garment workers in the country is the challenge we must now turn to as we must expand our struggle for the accountability of TNCs in the global supply chain.

For this moment, of course, let our celebration be a reminder that a militant, united and democratic working class alone builds strong unions: on the ground, builds strong national trade union centres and creates strong global unions.

Workers united will never be defeated.
Unions united will never be defeated.

Gautam Mody
General Secretary