Strengthening the capacity of trade unions in South-East Europe to improve wages and working conditions in the garment and footwear sectors

From 2 to 3 October 2019, a seminar was held in Maria Bistrica in Croatia on “Strengthening the capacity of trade unions in South-East Europe to improve wages and working conditions in the garment and footwear sectors”, organised by Recht en Plicht, with support from EZA and the European Union. There were thirty participants from 19 trade union organisations in the textile and clothing sectors.

In his introduction, Mr. Vinciane Mortier, General Secretary of  ACV-CSC METEA welcomed all the participants.

Mr. Nenad Leček president of the host organization speaks on behalf of the TOKG organization.

In his presentation, Mr. Luc Triangle, General Secretary of IndustriAll Europe, drew attention to the exodus of workers from Eastern Europe mainly to Western Europe countries as a risk factor for the economies of their native country. This development is not without risk to the economic stability of the countries of origin of these workers. In order to offer these countries a better future, unions must try to improve working and income conditions in this region. Therefore IndustriAll Europe has put in place a series of tools. The TCC Europe Conference, which took place in November in Sophia, is an important milestone for the establishment of a sustainable supply chain.

In his general introduction to the theme of the seminar, Mr. Vinciane Mortier, General Secretary of ACV-CSC METEA, stressed the importance of strengthening the position of trade unions. When we talk about the supply chain, we are inclined to think first of the big brands that have relocated their production to Asia (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, etc.) to take advantage of low wages and poor working conditions, but during our EZA seminar in 2017, we found that companies have started to relocate part of their Asian production to South-Eastern European countries (Croatia, Albania, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria North Macedonia…). We therefore urgently need to strenghten trade unions in these so that they can have a positive impact on the wages and the working conditions of workers and be able to influence policies in that region. A trade union should normally be able to conclude collective labour agreements on wages and working conditions both at company level and at sectorial and national level. It is therefore essential to increase the rate of unionisation and to increase their work. IndustriAll and NGOs such as the Clean Clothes Campaign can play an important role in this process.

In his presentation “Human Rights Due Diligence and Building Trade Union Power”, Mrs Ilse Dielen (international service of ACV-CSC METEA) first sketched the political picture: the shift to the political right, the pressure on social security and on social dialogue, the dismantling of trade union freedoms ... Then she pointed out that, increasingly, multinational companies are challenged on the ecological and societal impact of their activities across their entire supply chain, also via increased consumer awareness and an improved legal framework. By supply chain responsibility, we mean the responsibility of a company to respect human rights throughout the supply chain. The OECD Guide on Due Diligence for Responsible Business Conduct lists low wages, child labour, forced labour, excessive hours, freedom of association, health and safety as some of the main risks for our sector. The due diligence procedure consists of 5 steps:

  • Integrate the principles of responsible business conduct into business management policies and systems.
  • Identify and assess potential and proven negative impacts related to activities, products and services in the supply chain.
  • Stop, prevent and mitigate negative impacts.
  • Monitor the implementation of the duty of care and its results.
  • Communicate on how the company deals with these negative impacts
  • Repair the negative impacts of the business, by its own means or in cooperation with other actors

Yes, there are companies that abide by the principles of due diligence, but we also need a binding regulatory framework for supply chain responsibility. Some countries, such as France and the Netherlands already have a regulatory framework. But we also need a regulatory framework at European and global levels. This regulatory framework will not be put in place without pressure from NGOs, unions, political parties, etc.

Mrs Frieda De Koninck explains how the Clean Clothes Campaign is helping workers to structurally strengthen and improve their bargaining position and working conditions in the global clothing and sportswear industry:

  • By putting pressure on businesses and governments.
  • By organising solidarity with organised workers in the global supply chain and through ad ad hoc actions in relation in concrete cases of violations.
  • Via awareness and mobilisation projects.
  • The establishment of legal mechanisms via, among other things, permanent lobbying work.
  • Strengthening our own network and the global alliance for workers' rights.

The Clean Clothes campaign is not, however, a negotiator but rather a facilitator who builds bridges between union organisations to enable them to build a strong front.

According to Mr. ldiko Kren, IndustriAll Europe's strategic organiser, we need proactive unionism. Affiliates must feel they are members of a trade union. The impact of trade unions depends on their representativeness. The more members they have, the stronger they are against employers. As part of our project to strengthen trade union power, we always proceed in stages: the pre-campaign, preparation, laying the foundations, the consolidation phase and the extension phase.

Mr. Jyrki Raina, an external consultant, presents a brief overview of IndustriAll's project on strengthening industrial relations to improve working conditions and wages in the textile, clothing and footwear sector in the southern region of Europe. The project made it possible to map the main problems for the countries concerned: low wages, few collective labour agreements, a low rate of representation… The trade unions in the countries concerned should be strengthened and a dignified collective concertation system put in place. Mr. Luc Triangle, Secretary General of IndustriAll Europe, confirms that in many countries unions can only bargain at the enterprise level. The lack of (representative) employer federations makes it impossible for unions to negotiate at a sectorial or even intersectorial level. At that point the participating  trade union organisations formulated a listing to strengthen trade unions in their respective countries.

The participants explained the action plan they had developed to strengthen trade union organisations in their country. After interesting debates, Mr. Gieljan Van Mellaert (trade union technician of ACV-CSC METEA for the textile and clothing sectors) and Mr. Ildiko Kren formulated a series of conclusions and tasks to be carried forward:

  • Negotiations to improve working conditions and wages preferably must take place at the sector level. The sectorial collective agreement then serves as a starting point for possible negotiations at company level;
  • Trade unions must put in place effective structures at the national and regional levels and in companies;
  • Unions need to be more professional. Thanks to excellent (permanent) training, union representatives must be able to become strong figures. Unions must also use the expertise of NGOs and experts.
  • Trade unions will have to use several strategies to organise workers in companies or in a sector according to the situation on the ground (presence/absence of the trade union in the companies.)
  • Recruiting new affiliates is essential for the development of trade unions. To boost membership, workers need to know not only the benefits of membership but also the disadvantages of not being organised.
  • Let's not forget that the sector is struggling to find young workers. Unions must remain attentive to the specific problem of young people.

As part of the European supply chain analysis, seminar participants paid a study visit to Kotka Industries (Krapina). Kotka Industries is a tailor, specialising in custom suits. The company works mainly for a number of Western European brands (e.g. Italian, German and Norwegian brands). Together with Mr. Josip Palin, head of the company and Mr. Nenad Leček and Mr. Ljubiča Hosni (TOKG), we discussed social dialogue in the country of production, in this case, Croatia.

Mr. Mario Ivekovic, from Novi Sindikat and active for CCC Eastern Europe, painted the profile of the textile and clothing sectors in Romania and social dialogue in this country and, more particularly in the aforementioned sectors. Here are some highlights of his presentation: 

  • The salary in these sectors corresponds to 14% of a salary allowing a decent living
  • Many workers are forced to work overtime without any compensation
  • Workers are afraid of losing their jobs and agree to work overtime
  • Poor working conditions (workshops are insufficiently ventilated and have no air conditioning)
  • In the workshops, an unbearable heat during the summer
  • No breaks
  • Deductions from wages or vouchers if production targets are not met.

Recent changes to Romanian labour law have fundamentally changed the model of social consultation and collective bargaining:

  • Abolition of the national level of concertation (which fixed inter alia minimum wages)
  • Obligation to conclude collective labour agreements only if there are more than 21 workers
  • To be representative, a trade union must represent at least 50% of workers
  • It is now no longer possible to form a union or carry out union activities in companies with fewer than 15 workers
  • It has become much more difficult to exercise the right to strike


The Romanian UNICONF trade union notes that the share of workers in social security contributions has been increased considerably, to the benefit of employers. This increase completely consumed the increase in the minimum wage. 

Working conditions and wages must be improved from bottom to top but also from top to bottom (implementation of most favourable legislation). In addition, there is a need for companies in Central and Eastern Europe to take responsibility for what is happening in their part of the supply chain. Criminal offenses must be made punishable. We spot good practices in due diligence (duty of care) in the Netherlands and in France, but the European level will have to follow this evolution, which is far from being the case at the moment.

After the presentations and debates, Mr. Vinciane Mortier formulated a series of conclusions, among others :

  • The unions participating in the seminar undertake to draw up an action plan to strengthen the position of unions in their countries, sectors and companies. We need to build a strong European trade union network that allows trade unions to exchange information and help each other. This action plan should enable trade unions to put in place a real strategy for strengthening trade union organisations. This strategic plan covers, among other things, the following points:
    • Training delegates is the cornerstone of a strong union in companies
    • The union must organise itself effectively, allowing it to be active and achieve results at several levels.
    • Unions must put in place an effective model of social agreements enabling them to conclude collective labour agreements at national, sectorial and company level, improving working conditions of workers and remuneration.
  • Work at national, sectorial and company level must be extended to the European level, inter alia through European works councils.