(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.