Corporate social responsibility in the European textile and clothing supply/production chain

The seminar about “Corporate social responsibility in the European textile and clothing supply/production chain” took place on 27 and 28 September 2017 in Elewijt, Belgium, organized by Recht en Plicht, with the support of EZA and of the European Union. 63 representatives of 15 different trade union organizations from the Textile, Clothing, Leather and Footwear sector actively took part in the seminar.

Jan Callaert, General Secretary ACV-CSC METEA, gave a general introduction on the theme and insisted on the importance of a well- organized social dialogue within the entire production chain, including Europe. 

When we speak about the supply chain we usually think about major brands who produce in Asia where textile workers work in bad conditions and earn low wages (Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, …). We regularly see images in the media of buildings collapsing or burning down causing many casualties. We particularly think of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, among others. As trade unions and non-governmental organizations our projects aim at improving salaries and working conditions of millions of workers in the Textile and Clothing industry in Asia.

But the problem doesn’t limit itself to Asia. In Europe as well, brands such as Hugo Boss, Adidas, Zara, H&M or Benetton try to produce at the lowest possible cost. This means saving on production costs such as salaries and working conditions. In many cases producing in Asia is becoming too expensive so that these brands turn to countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Macedonia (FYROM), Moldavia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey and Ukraine. Often the salary which is actually paid represents only a fraction of a livable salary in those countries.

There is also a lot to say about the long working hours and working conditions, not to mention security. In the course of this seminar we will hopefully learn from concrete situations in your different countries. Often the consumer is pointed at. The excuse is that the consumer doesn’t want to pay a higher price for products made under decent salary and working conditions. This is totally untrue. In fact, the benefits mainly go to the brands and the trade.

A lot has already been done in Western Europe where decision centers are established. And yet we must seize every opportunity to assist our colleagues not only in Asia, but also in Eastern Europe and Turkey. Hence the idea to organize an EZA seminar on this topic.

Luc Triangle, General Secretary IndustriAll Europe, gave an overview of activities within the European social dialogue steered by IndustriAll in the Textile, Garnment, Leather and Footwear sector. Despite the fact that 4 million jobs disappeared in the European textile cluster in the past 4 years, this sector is still the backbone of the European industry, especially as the textile cluster is linked to energy and trade. Within the social dialogue we continue to focus on collective bargaining negotiations and strongly oppose the liberal trend to limit the social dialogue to the company level or the individual level. It is essential for us to develop a European network for trade unions and socially inspired organizations to exchange their views and experiences. In the next few years IndustriAll will carry on developing this “union-power” through structuring and organizing the different textile organizations and by attracting members.

Luc also explained the aim of IndustriAll’s European project which is to start up the social dialogue in the European Textile and Clothing production chains. This project consists of 3 different phases.

Firstly, a mapping of the different production chains in Europe in collaboration with the Fair Wear Campaign. It is not only important to map the production chains but also the brands as the key lies in their hands. Secondly, the trade unions and non-governmental organizations concerned will be brought together, trade unions as negotiators and non-governmental organizations as campaign spearheads. Both perspectives are important within the social dialogue. Thirdly, a strategy will be developed to increase salaries and improve working conditions of all workers of the production chain. Our success do not only depend on Brussels or Geneva but rather on a close collaboration with all actors concerned.

Jyrki Rayna, ex-Secretary General of IndustriAll Global Union, sketched the problems in the Textile and Clothing production chains in Europe. Apparently, the situation in Europe is as acute as in the low wage Asian countries. We even notice that there is a shift of the production chains from Asia to Europe. Here are the main observations:

  • A low unionizing rate, less than 10%
  • Low salaries and long working hours
  • Hardly any collective bargaining agreements
  • Large proportion in the hands of informal sector
  • Trade unions have insufficient resources/means to resist
  • Trade unions are not well-organized, unstructured and miss a strategy
  • Presence of non-governmental organizations to campaign

In addition to Jyrki’s observations, all participants had a chance to present and comment the situation in their country. Here are the main ideas:

  • In the European Textile and Clothing sector, salaries are generally lower than the minimum wages and therefore lead to poverty. Unskilled workers in particular earn low wages.
  • Social dialogue is difficult mainly because there are no employers’ federations. When collective bargaining agreements are concluded, they are usually not applied.
  • The Textile and Clothing sector struggles with a huge problem as regards its image. Young workers leave the sector and their country for better wages elsewhere in Europe.
  • There is a lack of decent training.
  • In most countries the limited labor/employment legislation has been cut down at the disadvantage of workers and trade unions.
  • Problem of the unionizing rate. Workers are afraid to lose their job if they become member of a union.
  • Increasing number of precarious contracts.
  • Importance of solidarity between workers and of European works councils.
  • However there are positive examples in Poland and Slovenia where they try to work with their own brand names.

4 case studies were presented:

  • Jessie Van Couwenberghe, CSC international, explained what the “Clean Sports Clothes” campaign consists of. The consumer is being asked to buy only clothes which have been produced in socially acceptable conditions.
  • Bettina Musiolek, SKC coordinator Eastern and Southern Europe, commented the 2 reports on “Pay a Living Wage”. She also explained what was meant by a livable salary. To define what a livable salary is she explained that the price of food, rent and housing, medical care, education, clothing, mobility and savings are taken into consideration.
  • Within the social dialogue at company level as well, special attention can be given to wages and working conditions of production plants in Southern and Eastern Europe. This was clearly demonstrated by social partners of Van De Velde, a company of ladies’ underwear. The company produces in Belgium, China, Hungary and Tunisia. CEO, Herman Van De Velde, trade union secretary, Carl De Clercq and company activist, Kenneth Famelaer, all clearly illustrated this case.
  • Finally, Jacob Plat, an executive of the Dutch FNV Textile trade union, gave a presentation on the “Sustainable Clothing and Textile” agreement reached by social partners and politicians.

After intensive discussions between participants, the following conclusions and steps were formulated:

  • Objectives for the future:
    • Further develop and assist trade unions in terms of organization and strategy.
    • Reinforce the social dialogue via collective consultation which must result in enforceable collective bargaining agreements.
    • Start a strong movement towards higher wages in order to obtain livable wages.
    • Develop more trade union capacity by supporting and training trade union delegates.
  • Mapping of production chains in Textile and Clothing with a special attention for the presence of brands and situation of trade unions.
  • Organize national workshops on the basis of the mapping in order to obtain clear strategies via training of trade union representatives. 
  • Establish contacts and set up a network with Western European trade unions (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain, ..).
  • Start dialogue with major companies (GFA and ACT companies).
  • Start dialogue with the employers’ federations concerned.
  • Collaborate with non-governmental organizations (Clean Clothes Campaign) and training centers.
  • Draw up a clear communication strategy.
  • Start a European campaign to improve salaries and working conditions within production chains.
  • It is important not to impose solutions but propose strategies.