President of Garment and Allied Workers Union in North India
International Coordinator, Asia Floor Wage Alliance
September 24, 2019, New York
At this moment in global history, we are witnessing a rise in authoritarianism, restrictions on civic freedoms and crackdowns on democracy in the biggest democracies in the world. As such, the independent trade union movement is needed more than ever to fight back against rising authoritarianism and fascism in the global landscape. The labor movement has always been at the forefront of liberation movements in South and Southeast Asia, by playing a strong role in the fight against colonialism and military dictatorships in India and Indonesia. We see the rise of anti-worker and anti-union labor reforms in India and throughout Asia — including Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Indonesia — at the behest of Western led agencies, governments and multinational corporations housed in these countries.
In order to overturn the authoritarianism that is sneaking up on us, we need strategic unity between the independent trade union movement (that is organising among young workers and women workers) and the traditional mainstream labor movement. Asia Floor Wage Alliance is an Asian-led global alliance of trade unions and labor organizations fighting for living wages, freedom of association, and a violence free workplace for women workers in garment global supply chains. We emphasize Asian-led because we are building an alliance in the labor movement where the leadership comes from the production countries themselves and then allies with global North countries.
In June 2019, the International Labour Organisation — in its 100th year — voted overwhelmingly to adopt a new Convention and Recommendation to end violence and harassment in the world of work. Convention 190 (C190) explicitly addresses gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work. Through our twelve year history fighting for living wages and the freedom of association as Asia Floor Wage Alliance, we have found that gender-based violence in the workplace to be the most corrosive element that works against everything, and now implementing the ILO convention 190 in the workplace along with the prevention of gender based violence and harassment has become central to our strategy.
As the President of Garment and Allied Workers Union in North India and International Coordinator of AFWA, everyday we find women workers who are facing gender-based violence on the production line and in the factories. As a result, it becomes really difficult for women to attempt to unionize, which leads to a low unionization density throughout the garment industry. The elimination of gender-based violence is a necessary condition for accessing other labor rights, including the right to a living wage and the right to freedom of association.
Corporate social responsibility divisions of global garment brands have developed multiple training programs for the workplace. At the ground level, however, these trainings have failed to address the spectrum of GBVH that women garment workers face on production lines. We know from experience that training cannot accomplish the deep transformation in organizational culture that is required to end GBVH in garment factories. The purchasing practices of brands, who are the main drivers of garment global supply chains, are what cause gender-based violence. As such, any agreements that are made between workers and management, must address the deeper issues that women workers at the production line face so they can get to a place where they feel empowered to raise their voices, which cannot be simply done through the detection of labor and GBVH violations.
Our Safe Circle Approach, is a transformative approach to GBVH prevention that provides a step-by-step methodology. Focused on the front lines of GBVH, the Safe Circle approach provides guidance for implementing the crucial missing links in existing workplace programs to address GBVH: organizational transformation through the empowerment of women workers on production lines. Preventing GBVH is not only fundamental to the health, safety, and dignity of women workers, but it is also foundational to freedom of association and collective bargaining in industries dominated by women workers.
Through the Safe Circle Approach, AFWA approaches gender-based violence as a preventative methodology for accessing other rights. This is the third necessary component in addition to corporate accountability through enforceable agreements with suppliers and brands focused on detection and remedy. To eliminate gender based violence women workers at the production line and the mill supervisors and their male colleagues have to engage in an ongoing process of interaction in order to get to a place where women feel empowered to raise their voices. That cannot be simply done through detection of violation and addressing them. Safe circles provides for continuous, regular interaction that builds women power to say “yes, I understand where I come from, why this is happening to me.” It is both personal transformation and institutional transformation.
Women in Deogarh, Orissa,. Photo by Simon Williams / Ekta Parishad – Ekta Parishad. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons