Penelope Kyritsis (oD): Can you please tell us your name and what you do.
I’m Anannya Bhattacharjee and I am a local trade unionist in India. I organise workers who produce for the global market – in garment, leather shoes and also auto parts – and am also the coordinator for the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. This is a global campaign for garment workers in Asia, who produce most of the world's clothing.
Penelope: In your organising experience, what have you seen as being the biggest obstacle for addressing labour exploitation in global supply chains?
Anannya: One of the biggest obstacles is that the employers in global supply chains do not take responsibility for the welfare of the workers. When I say employers of the supply chain, I mean the big brands and the retailers who are subcontracting the manufacturing to countries like ours.
A lot of people may think that the immediate employer is the factory, which is the case, but the principal employer is not the factory manager. It’s the factory manager’s boss – the brand and the retailer. They do not take responsibility for the welfare of the workers and are only interested in getting the product out of the country as cheaply as possible, without any regard for the workers who are manufacturing the products.
Penelope: And what can the state do to protect workers?
Anannya: In a lot of manufacturing countries there are labour laws. However, complying with labour laws also costs money. What we find is that because the big brands and the retailers are squeezing the prices they pay to manufacturers for their products, there is less and less money for legal compliance.
The only way to really bargain with brands is to bargain globally.
Definitely we complain to the government when laws are violated, and we go to the labour department and we do all those things. However, it is important to understand that governments in these countries and the manufacturers in these countries are themselves being pressured and squeezed by the multinationals and retailers, who are there because laws are violated and they don’t want to pay for what it takes for the laws to be followed.
Penelope: And what can workers do to be included in these government mechanisms that exist to protect workers?
Anannya: The only structure that can protect workers is unionisation. So the workers have to unionise in order to then hold all the parties accountable. However, knowing that unionisation will lead to compliance – which costs money – the brands and the retailers prefer to say they want workers to freely associate, and that they support freedom of association and collectivisation. But in actuality they do not, because when workers do unionise the brands turn a blind eye to retaliation towards them. This retaliation can be firing a worker, or gangsters beating them up. It can be verbal, physical, emotional, all kinds of activities. Basically the brands and retailers are happy just mouthing these words without doing the actions or putting the money forward that is required for worker protection.
Ishan Khosla/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Penelope: And in this context where governments aren’t doing their fair share, have you seen any promising alternative forms of labour organising emerge?
Anannya: Well the only way to really bargain with brands is to bargain globally, because the brands and the retailers are not within the borders of the countries that manufacture their products. Right now global supply chains or the global production system is completely unregulated, which means there is no legal jurisdiction under which the brands and retailers fall. This makes accountability extremely difficult legally.
In order to bargain with them, one would need to build enough bargaining power to really get to them. This requires different types of powers: organising within our countries. Then linking up with unions in different countries that are trying to achieve the same goal, and thereby forming larger and larger units of bargaining. Then linking up with colleagues, activists, consumer activists, and unions in the country where the brand and the retailer is, and ultimately forming a global chain that can bargain globally. It requires alliance building which is at scale and also diverse. It’s not an easy thing to do. Some of us are doing it, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance is an example of that, but it is difficult and that’s really the only only way to do it.