Onderstaand artikel is gepubliceerd in/Published in: The Hindu, 28-11-2002      

Unions turning to global NGOs

Suresh Nambath

Thursday, Nov 28, 2002

CHENNAI NOV. 27. With unorganised workers reluctant to repose faith in trade unions an era of liberalisation and globalisation, social activists are coordinating with international non-governmental organisations in an attempt at securing higher wages in the exploitative, export-driven garment industry.

Rather than persuade the workers to confront the employers, the union leaders are networking with organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, which carry out a global campaign against import of garments from units that do not uphold labour standards.

Although the success of such networking is still minimal, union activists recognise this method as a surer way of ensuring minimum wages than the conventional, but difficult, route of mobilising the workers. An interface between the Campaign representatives, who have reported success in Indonesia and the Philippines, and labour leaders, is now being held.

With the proliferation of garment export units, which predominantly employ women on low pay, and sub-contracting of works to smaller units, the unions found it difficult to obtain their traditional leverage in influencing wages.

Scepticism of unions
As the recruitment is from a mass base of housemaids, the unions have been unable to penetrate this informal sector. Moreover, the unorganised, low-skill workers do not appear to have developed faith in unionism as a mechanism for wage-settlement, at a time when jobs in the organised sector too seem to be coming under threat.

According to P.K.G. Menon of the INTUC, who coordinated with the Campaign representatives, the unions still have a long way to go before making a dent in the unorganised garment sector.

The Campaign, for all its potential to make a difference, has so far had only a minimal effect, he says.

While there is indeed a conflict of interests for the unions, in that the competitive advantage of cheap labour for the Indian industry would be lost, the representatives of the Campaign have tried to reassure them that it does not work on labour standards in the framework of trade agreements.

It does not advocate a linkage between trade and labour standards. Instead, the effort is at providing space for the unions and the NGOs to work together on international labour issues. Also, the Campaign does not call for a boycott of goods from units with poor labour standards, as that action can result in workers losing jobs. The stress is on asking consumers in the developed countries to stop buying such products and influencing the companies to adopt fair conditions.

The CITU leader, A.K. Padmanabhan, who too interacted with the Campaign representatives, says he made it clear that the unions were against any effort which would hamper the export potential of the garment units. At the same, they were ready to cooperate with any initiative for raising the labour standards in the unorganised sector.

Focus on Tirupur
The focus in Tamil Nadu has been on Tirupur, where more than a lakh of garment workers, excluding those in dyeing and bleaching units, are employed. Of these, only about 10,000 are unionised. While the threat of intervention by international voluntary organisations did prompt some of the major units, to raise labour standards, the real problem is in the relatively small units which escape attention.

Moreover, the workers are wary of international campaigns which, they feel, can result in a cut in production and loss of employment. Apart from the Clean Clothes Campaign, there have been fora involved with Global Sourcing Principles which showed interest in greater coordination between the trade unions in Tamil Nadu and international organisations to raise labour standards.

However, for the local unions the challenge is in raising labour standards without contributing to closure of the export units. While social activists agree that coordinating with international campaigns is a short-cut to lifting labour standards without the difficulties of unionisation, it carries with it the pitfalls of such short-cut methods. At the same time, given the problems in working with a demoralised workforce, other methods will have to wait, they say.




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