Garment workers mourn trade union leader

(Taken from the  Guardian obituary )

Written by Doug Miller, Thursday 26 November 2009

Neil Kearney, who has died of a heart attack aged 59, was an inspirational leader in the international trade union movement. As general secretary of the Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), he had just completed a series of union meetings and visits to supplier factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He had been to the country more than 50 times since 1988, in particular working with the Spanish multinational fashion retailer Inditex. Recently they had ensured that workers and families whose lives were devastated by the collapse of the Spectrum factory in Savar, north-west of Dhaka, in 2005, in which 64 were killed and many injured, received adequate compensation and medical assistance.

His work with Inditex led to the first international framework agreement on employment standards which focused solely on the protection of workers’ rights in the supply chain of a multinational in the textile and garment sector. His interventions with Inditex in factories in Peru, Turkey, Bangladesh and Cambodia led to the reinstatement of hundreds of workers who had been sacked for joining a trade union; the introduction of proper systems of industrial relations; and, in Cambodia, the removal of short-term contracts of employment in favour of open-ended ones. Neil visited more than 140 countries worldwide, and was tireless and passionate in his defence of those workers who continued to fall prey to the worst excesses of the international outsourcing of garment and footwear production to sweatshops.

Born in Donegal, Ireland, Neil moved to the UK at the age of 17 and took a job in banking, joining the union on his first day at work. In 1972 he joined the then National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, where he served as head of the information and research department for 16 years. He was active in politics during that period, running for parliament twice in 1974. Four years later, he was successfully elected as a Labour councillor in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where he became leader of the opposition. A lifelong socialist, he remained a member of the Labour party until he resigned over the Iraq war.

He was elected general secretary at the ITGLWF’s sixth world congress in Tokyo in 1988. In a 21-year period of office, he had to contend with a massive upheaval in the sector, which led to wholesale migration of manufacture from the developed to the developing world. This had a great impact on the financial basis of the organisation, which had relied on affiliation fees from its member unions. To mobilise resources to help workers in developing countries, Neil successfully accessed international public funding to mount a series of projects. The elimination of child labour and the improvement of health and safety were prime objectives.

Neil was a founding member of Social Accountability International’s advisory board and, in this capacity, used his knowledge of International Labour Organisation conventions to develop the SA 8000 ethical standard, an industry benchmark on worker rights for supplier factories. He also joined the board of the UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative, where he convinced member companies of the need to replace social audits with proper systems of industrial relations in supplier factories abroad.

As the industry underwent major restructuring after the removal of quantitative limits on clothing imports in 2004, he was a prime mover in the establishment of the MFA Forum (set up as the international Multi-Fiber Agreement came to an end). It aims to improve the sustainability of national garment industries such as those in Morocco and Lesotho, which risk losing jobs as production switched to cheaper locations. He was instrumental in persuading Nike to disclose publicly its supply chain in 2005, and a number of other companies soon followed suit.

Neil seemed to thrive on his punishing travel schedules. During his last day in Bangladesh, he was working on the final detail of a second international framework agreement, meeting with the management and workers of an Inditex supplier and, as usual, supporting his affiliates in their campaign for a living wage.

In Bangladesh, three days of mourning were declared in the textile and garment sector last week. Neil is survived by his wife, Jutta, and his daughters, Nicola and Caroline.

Bullying? Bangladesh under pressure

If you read this story you’ll understand about power. I’ll give you a brief summary: A group of major buyers from high street brands such as M&S, Hennes, Walmart, Tesco and Nike met with the head of the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers Association and pushed for Bangladesh to reduce the prices they’re offering to exporters.

The brands used the excuse that other countries such as India, Pakistan, China and Vietnam were all lowering prices and strongly suggested that Bangladesh do the same.

My question reading this was, what choice do Bangladeshi garment companies have? I’m constantly shocked at how trade negotiations aren’t actually negotiations. As the deficit is passed down the supply chain, price drops and the economic crisis inevitably end up hitting the workers at the bottom hardest, and they’re the people who can’t afford the loss.

The reality is that as people stop shopping and recession spending hits home, companies have got spooked and are grouping together to demand lower prices from countries who are already being driven to produce at very cheap rates. Playground bullying? – yes even in the big world.

The president of the Bangladeshi exporters association noted that trade with Europe and the States had shrunk by 10 % in January, and was worried. As that trade makes up 90% of the industry, this is bad news for workers who will face job cuts in the coming months. Not to mention the industry reverting to temporary contracts to cope with a fluctuating climate, or factories accepting large orders that they can’t really cope with because it sounds like good money.

Blood, Sweat and T-shirts

Everyone has been talking about the BBC TV series, Blood, Sweat and Tshirts, in which, “six young fashion addicts experience life as factory workers in India, making clothes for the British high street.”

Last night was the final episode of the programme, along with a set-piece discussion on Newsnight (actual programme here – will work until 20th May).  Stacey and Georgina from the programme were in a discussion with Jane Mill from the British Retail Consortium, which represents a large number of the big fashion retailers.

The girls from Blood, Sweat and Tshirts had obviously been significantly affected by what they’d seen in India, but the problem – they said – was the dearth of positive alternatives on the UK high street.

We’re often asked ‘where can I buy ethical clothes’, a question we’ve tried to answer elsewhere.  The honest truth is that, while there are some fair trade alternatives away from the high street, on the high street there is no way to buy clothes that you can be sure were made in good conditions.  The important thing to do is to buy from whereever and then write to the companies telling them that you’re concerned.

The biggest disappointment of the discussion was Paxman’s line of questioning, which left unchallenged the BRC’s assertion, repeated on its website, that,

BRC members take their responsibility for the welfare of their own and their suppliers’ workers very seriously, especially with regard to the use of child and forced labour.

The reality is that if brands had been taking these matters seriously for the past ten years then a lot more would have changed.  Still, the BRC’s position is a considerable improvement on that which is found elsewhere on its website – outright denial:

It’s a myth that UK retailers source from exploitative, badly run sweatshops. That would be unethical and unworkable. For example China is producing shoes for the world on an unprecedented scale. That requires safe, modern attractive factories, not the backstreets. Standards in factories located in developing countries often surpass those in Europe and America. To provide goods in the quantities, of the quality and to the timescales UK retailers require, they have to. World class facilities in Asia are delivering product to some of the most demanding consumers in the world on the UK high street. Only the best will do and this must be built on total trust in ethical and environmental standards. Any factory which cannot compete on this level will simply not be able to meet the standards demanded by BRC members and their customers. Retailers work with the Ethical Trading Initiative to ensure that high standards are adhered to. Suppliers are systematically inspected . If they are not able to meet these standards contracts are ended and business is taken elsewhere.

Factcheck: Sainsbury’s on Newsnight

Sainsbury‘s Head of Sustainability appeared on Newsnight last night, discussing an interesting piece on ethical fashion. Unfortunately she was either misinformed or, more likely given her senior position, deliberately misleading viewers.  Here’s the particular exchange that raised my eyebrows: Read the rest of this entry »

Who is the ethical consumer?

At LBL you might be detect an audible sigh when a consumer asks “where can I get ethical clothes?” or a journalist “do Gap produce in unethical conditions?”

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical fashion’ has come to mean “an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing, which is both socially and environmentally sustainable” (Ethical Fashion Forum). But it signifies more than that: it is a fashion trend in its own right, a segment of the market, like petite or smart-casual or goth.

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical trade’, means that companies, “take agreed steps to ensure their supplier companies respect the rights of their workers by adhering to national labour laws and the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)” (Ethical Trading Initiative). Read the rest of this entry »

Primark response – living wage

Primark response to living wage actionPrimark owner ABF has sent us a response to our online action on living wages, which hundreds of supporters have completed. The action is also addressed to M&S, Tesco and the Arcadia Group, but these retailers have yet to respond. Click on the image to see the response in full.

Read the rest of this entry »

Matalan response – freedom of association

In the autumn, hundreds of LBL supporters sent postcards to Matalan. They looked like this (click the image to see the full size version).

Action card sent to Matalan

This is Matalan’s response, which dozens of supporters forwarded to us.

Matalan’s response to supporters who sent the card

Read the rest of this entry »