" Next workers’ struggle is incredibly inspiring. Employers are abusing the corona pandemic to silence unions but when workers stand together and get international support, they are invincible."
With the support of thousands of activists worldwide, garment workers in Sri Lanka managed to get their factory union recognised in March 2021. From then on, they were well represented in discussions and collective bargaining with their employer Next Manufacturing Ltd (NML), in order to achieve better working conditions. The factory makes clothes for Next fashion brand, listed on the London stock exchange, with 700 shops in 38 countries.
NML initially wanted to totally ignore the factory union in Katunayake, a free trade zone: an area in which it is made extra attractive for companies to base their factories, but where independent unions often have difficulties in organising. The garment workers on the other hand, were keen to unite into a trade union, to represent their interests collectively.
After the factory management refused to recognise the union, the workers stood firm. They asked for support from the Clean Clothes Campaign network, War on Want, Labour Behind the Label and the Pay Your Workers, Respect Labour Rights campaign. Thousands of sympathisers sent letters, signed petitions, or called the parent company Next to urge them to recognise the union.
It all started in December 2020, when garment workers successfully staged a walkout to win back unpaid bonuses. Bonuses are crucial to survival; they supplement their meagre wages and are not a luxury. After this strike, NML agreed to pay out the overdue bonuses.
When the workers formed a new branch of the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Unions (FTZ & GSEU), NML did not recognise it. The workers faced intimidation, threats and discrimination. NML management clearly wanted to break the union: disrupt and silence the union to prevent workers from standing up together for better wages and working conditions.
United in strength
Official recognition of a trade union is necessary so that the union can negotiate with the employer about wages and working conditions, and employees are not played off against each other or put under pressure. Workers have the right to join the union of their choice, and this right was not respected by NML.
Following the international campaign in support of the garment workers, NML finally recognised the factory union in June 2021. Negotiations followed and in October the union signed a collective agreement with the employer. Consequently, several of their demands were finally met: recognition of the union, an end to intimidation of union members and an agreement to collectively bargain over workers' wages.
"This case shows that when workers are determined to organise, nationally and internationally, they are unbeatable," said Anton Marcus, secretary of the FTZ & GSEU union.
Even though the union has been successful in getting official recognition, the case is still being monitored to make sure that the union is able to speak for the workers and is being listened to.
Check out payyourworkers.org to see what you can do to support garment workers who are standing up for their rights.
Since the 1960s, garment manufacturing has become one of the most important sectors in Sri Lanka's economy. Nearly half a million people worked in this industry before the corona pandemic struck, by April 2020, this had declined to 400 thousand. The basic wage in the garment industry is estimated to be between 68 and 120 USD per month, which is far below what is considered a living wage in Sri Lanka.