Author: Poonam Whabi

Due to the pandemic, casino workers in Chile have been laid off since March and have had their public assistance slowly reduced and cut off leaving many people with little resources to survive.

Now as the Chilean shutdown orders expire and casinos will be reopening their employers have refused to guarantee that they will rehire the union workers which threatens not just their jobs but also their organization. GLJ-ILRF has been supporting UNI affiliated union federations FENASICAJH (Federación Nacional de Sindicatos de Casinos de Juegos y Hoteles en Chile) and CONA RACOPS (Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores Del Comercio, Servicios, Call Center y Casinos de Juegos) to push back. They had met with casino owners twice and had been getting the run-around so they decided to go public on Tuesday, September 8th, holding a press conference with allied elected leaders and launched a video where nearly 1,000 casino workers showed their faces to demand that they be rehired when the casinos reopen. The fight to win job security is fundamental to economic justice and it can only happen when we all stand together and defend unionization from corporations that use crises to drive anti-worker agendas.

Because they are paid poverty wages, garment workers — primarily women — have long had to go into debt in order to cover basic living expenses for their families.

Minimum wages in garment producing countries are at or below poverty level and fashion companies source at prices that pay workers at or below minimum wages. Working families having to support themselves on poverty wages makes their ability to provide for food, housing, schooling, and healthcare precarious. Furthermore, informal loans taken to cover these basic expenses are only offered at predatory interest rates that put additional strain on families’ finances.

In Cambodia, for the past several years, microfinance institutions (MFIs) have attempted to put a bandaid over poverty wages in the garment sector by providing formal loans to low-income earners like garment workers. MFI bank loans may address working families’ short-term needs. However, like informal loans, MFI bank loans also put families at increased risk of economic catastrophe. Working families often put up their only assets, often land, as collateral for loans, meaning they could risk everything if they lose their source of income and default as a result. 

Now, during the COVID crisis, tens of thousands of garment workers in Cambodia are out of work and millions are at risk of defaulting on MFI loans and losing everything they have — an economic catastrophe on top of a public health crisis. 

In response, Cambodian unions and civil society organizations are fighting Cambodian banks and the Cambodian government for MFI loan relief for low-income working families — including those working in the garment sector — during the COVID crisis. 

In their June 30 briefing paper Worked to Debt: Over-Indebtedness in Cambodia’s Garment Sector, the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), reveal the impacts of MFI loans on workers in Cambodia’s garment sector. 

Through a survey taken between March and May 2020 of 162 garment workers (158 women) who previously worked at factories that have partially or fully suspended work due to COVID, Worked to Debt found ⅔ of surveyed workers were paying off at least one microloan from an MFI or bank. Among those with such loans, 72% reported eating less food in order to repay. 73% said they had taken a microloan to repay an existing debt. 

In addition, these MFI loans are putting garment workers’ assets in land at risk. 79% of surveyed workers’ microloans were collateralized by land titles. 15% had already sold land in order to repay, and another 30% planned to sell land in the future in order to pay. 

Early in the crisis, in late April 135 civil society groups, including CATU, CENTRAL, and LICADHO, in Cambodia called for suspension of MFI loans during COVID. However, the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) has so far only issued non-binding recommendations to MFI banks to offer rescheduling and deferment. In late June, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen encouraged MFIs to repossess land that had been used as collateral for microloans if debtors were unable to pay.

Worked to Debt calls on the Cambodian Government, MFIs, and international investors and development partners to suspend or encourage suspension of loan repayments, and to protect garment workers’ land. However, it also calls on those in power in fashion supply chains — fashion companies. 

Fashion export is critical to Cambodia’s economy as a source of capital and as a source of work. Garment export employs roughly 800,000 and generates about 40% of Cambodia’s economic output. Fashion companies were a driver behind garment workers in Cambodia taking MFI loans pre-COVID in the first place, since workers were unable to cover their families’ needs with poverty wages that fashion companies — via their contracts with suppliers — effectively pay.

As shown in Worked to Debt, MFI loans’ impacts on fashion supply chain workers in Cambodia during COVID reveal that fashion supply chains are broken — a reality that workers themselves have long known. Fashion companies failing to take responsibility for their impacts on supply chain workers has wide-ranging knock-on effects that hit women especially hard, even more so during COVID. One such effect is debt: poverty wages make it more likely that workers will take out loans and will not be able to make payments during an unprecedented economic shock like COVID.

All actors CATU, CENTRAL, and LICADHO are calling on have a role to play to settle this crisis for workers. Fashion companies must play an active role in that process. Companies should be working seriously in support of and with unions and civil society organizations to meet the immediate needs of supply chain workers and their families during the COVID crisis; no working family should have to sell their land because they lost their job in a fashion supply chain.

The International Labor Right Forum and Global Labor Justice Are Joining Forces to Defend Worker Rights and Build Worker Power in the Global Economy

Today, I am excited to announce the merger of two allied organizations – the International Labor Rights Forum and Global Labor Justice.  Developed over many months with the strong support of our allies, board, and staff, our new partnership is coming together at a critical time.  As quite literally every person in the world faces a common threat in the form of a global pandemic, workers are simultaneously more isolated and connected than ever before.  At a time when state and corporate responses leave workers around the world in crisis– locked into dangerous working conditions or locked out of jobs with essential wages and benefits– it is clear we must work together to build durable transnational alliances that advance a new strategic vision with labor and human rights in the foreground. Progressive economy efforts can no longer be seen as a parochial, national issue. Transnational movements and strategic campaigns are fundamental to a future that includes decent work, development, and democracy in the U.S. and around the world.  Together we will strengthen the force behind these efforts by providing greater strategic capacity, support, and momentum.

Where are We Now?

Complicated and opaque global supply chain models of production and services continue to expand wealth and income inequality among people and nations worldwide. At the same time, we are seeing a growing retrenchment of liberal democracy, the ascent of fascism, authoritarianism, anti-worker and anti-labor reforms throughout the global landscape.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent responses from employers, corporate actors and governments have had a catastrophic effect on the health and livelihoods of more than 150 million workers in global supply chains. Workers have been left to struggle against vast structural inequalities, with women workers being disproportionately affected by this crisis. Yet, a gender lens on global worker issues has been largely absent from employer and government responses. Migrant workers have also been stranded—both at home and in destination countries— ignored and left out of recovery and repatriation programs and used politically to drum up nationalism and xenophobia.

We can’t keep what we are doing.  It’s time for a new vision and new way forward.

What Experience Do We Bring? 

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) was formed over thirty years ago, as a progressive coalition of labor, human rights, faith, and policy leaders seeking to mitigate the harm of economic globalization on workers. ILRF has led several successful campaigns to secure labor rights guarantees in U.S. trade agreements, establishing a model that has since become a centerpiece of U.S. law and policy. Since then, ILRF has continued to insist on prioritizing labor rights in the transformation of the global economy, with allies in the U.S. and around the world.

Global Labor Justice was created in 2017 by a set of organizers and movement lawyers in the U.S., Asia, and Latin America confronting this altered terrain.  GLJ pairs legal, policy, and research approaches with organizing along the axis of global markets of goods and services, currently supporting key experiments within supply chains and across labor migration corridors in the Americas and Asia/ Middle East.      

What’s the Opportunity?

To create a more just global economy, we must center working people and their families and strengthen corporate and state accountability. And as our name highlights, human and labor rights must coexist with the power to exercise them. 

As we come together as one organization, GLJ and ILRF align our histories, our networks of allies, and our expertise – and we are poised to meet the challenge of building solidarity and worker power in this crisis. We will use expanded research, legal, and policy capacities to analyze global production networks, global financialization and labor migration, and converge sharp strategies to support transnational campaigns.  With our combined networks, GLJ and ILRF will be an important bridge between national and regional worker movements organizing for change along global axes and across borders. 

How We Seed and Grow Transformational Change

We are hopeful as we see labor and social movements strategically prying open the cracks in neoliberal models of racialized capitalism. Strikes, uprisings, and expanded organizing in the public, private, and informal sector are increasing despite the obstacles. We see workers building and using technology to facilitate transnational communication and organizing, pushing back on technology purely as a tool of surveillance and control. 

As we join forces, GLJ-ILRF renews our commitment to bring strategic capacity to transnational organizing efforts built along the levers of the global economy. And as our shared name highlights, we will center labor, especially freedom of association, and collective bargaining in existing and new innovative forms. 

We continue to stand in solidarity with allies who are calling for a progressive global labor internationalism committed to building organizing and worker power within the same multinationals, within sectors, and within broader strategic alliances including with movements for racial, gender, immigrant and climate justice. 

Stronger Together 

Our vision is clear. All workers– whether they are employees or self-employed, full-time or precarious, directly employed or subcontracted, in the public sector or in the gig and platform economies at the fringes of the private sector – deserve a living wage, safe and healthy working conditions and a social contract. Longstanding impediments to participation and leadership like gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace must also be eliminated. 

To do this, we must build the transnational linkages across borders that would traditionally divide working people and communities with similar interests. GLJ- ILRF’s mission is to provide key strategic capacity at these intersections, so we can remove barriers, advance innovative directions, expand organizing, and strengthen movement capacity. 

As we do this, workplace democracy and trade unions must continue to be a foundational part of democracy more broadly, and are more important than ever to oppose austerity measures at a time when workers and low-income countries are least able to bear them. 

We are at a critical juncture. As the pandemic forces the restructuring of global value chains and labor and financial markets, GLJ-ILRF will continue to support workers organizing for power and hold states, employers, multinationals, and their investors accountable.

As Ella Baker said, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. At GLJ-ILRF we are just getting started. We look forward to working with existing allies and new one towards winning rights, justice, and freedom for all working people and creating a more just and equitable global society.

In Solidarity,

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum 
Executive Director, GLJ-ILRF 

Trade unions and their allies are critical actors in driving corporate accountability for workers’ rights in global supply chains. In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster and other industrial tragedies and labor rights abuses, trade unions and their allies are forging meaningful corporate accountability for workers rights by negotiating legally binding, enforceable agreements between brands and trade unions that cover labor rights in the operations of brands’ third-party suppliers.

These agreements, which are often referred to by their proponents as “enforceable brand agreements” or “EBAs”, raise the bar for protection of labor rights in supply chains by replacing brands’ voluntary corporate social responsibility programs that have failed to end abuses with legally enforceable obligations to require and ensure that suppliers respect workers’ rights.

EBAs like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) have achieved historic progress when compared to the dismal track record of traditional CSR programs. The death-toll from garment factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh has been reduced by over 95% since the Accord’s inception. Despite this progress, the dispute resolution mechanism that ensures its enforceability has proven to be overly expensive, time consuming and less-than-transparent in practice. In order for EBAs to deliver greater accountability and transparency, they require more agile and efficient methods of dispute resolution. 

Designed for direct incorporation into enforceable brand agreements, the Model Arbitration Clauses for the Resolution of Disputes under Enforceable Brand Agreements Clauses advance a streamlined arbitration system that protects impartiality and due process while avoiding excessive litigiousness, promoting transparency, alleviating burdensome costs, and providing final and binding enforcement. The Clauses draw from leading international arbitration rules and existing supply-chain agreements negotiated by trade unions, labor rights NGOs and brands.

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Advancing Gender Justice on Asian Fast Fashion Supply Chains Post COVID-19: Learning from ILO’s Convention 190 on Its First Anniversary, reviews the gendered impact of COVID-19—and the need for a transformational approach to prevent and end GBVH using guidance from C190—in the context of Asian fast fashion supply chains which produce primarily consumer apparel and footwear. The report highlights the persistent risk factors for violence that both predate and are exacerbated by COVID-19. It provides detailed guidance for fast fashion lead firms on steps they can take to uphold C190 obligations to address violence on garment supply chains in context of the global public health crisis and the economic shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While this report focuses on fast fashion supply chains, the guidance for corporate accountability to achieve violence free workplaces provides an important roadmap across global supply chain sectors.

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Gender based violence in the Walmart garment supply chains is about the way that Walmart does business.

On May 28th, 2018 a global coalition of trade unions, worker rights and human rights organizations, which includes Asia Floor Wage Alliance, CENTRAL Cambodia, and Global Labor Justice released new factory level research detailing gender based violence in Walmart’s Asian garment supply chain. The coalition asks for immediate action by Walmart.

For women garment workers, violence and harassment isn’t limited to violence that takes place in physical workplaces, but also during commutes and in employer provided housing. Women garment workers in Walmart supply chains in Bangladesh and Cambodia reported acts of violence that include acts that inflicted sexual harm and suffering; physical violence, verbal abuse, coercion, threats and retaliation, and routine deprivations of liberty including forced overtime.

These are not isolated incidents. Rather, they reflect a convergence of risk factors for gender based violence in Walmart supplier factories that leave women garment workers systematically exposed to violence. Risk factors for violence documented in the Walmart garment supply chain, include: use of short term contracts, production targets, industrial discipline practices, wage related rights abuses, excessive working hours, and unsafe workplaces.

Barriers to accountability include: unauthorized subcontracting, denial of freedom of association, failure to require independent monitoring, and gendered cultures of impunity among perpetrators of violence and prevent women from seeking accountability and relief.

From 2018-2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is convening to set the first international labor standards on violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender based violence. Trade union leaders from around the world along with governments and business will meet to discuss the historic opportunity to create a global standard protecting women across sectors. These reports have been prepared to inform this dialogue. They aim to make sure that the experience and recommendations of low wage women workers, employed in sectors and supply chains that rely on their labor, are lifted up in order to create a strong framework that will guide employers, multi-national enterprises, and governments in eliminating gender based violence in garment supply chains and other workplaces.

Recommendations to the International Labour Organization (ILO)

Spectrum of gender based violence in Walmart garment supply chains

Gendered production roles in Walmart supplier factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia

Asia Floor Wage Alliance

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) is an international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activists who are working together to demand garment workers are paid a living wage. It began in 2005 when trade unions and labour rights activists from across Asia came together to agree on a strategy for improving the lives of garment workers: a wage for garment workers across Asia that would be enough for workers to live on.