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Guest Blog: Kevin Thomas on Historic Victory in Honduras for Labour Rights Activists

    A hot topic in labour law and legal theory these days is the extent to which ‘non-state’ actors can influence labour practices.  Labour activists have been very active in the past decade exposing labour abuses in global supply chains and pressuring corporations  to improve conditions of work in supplier factories.  I’ve written in the past about campaigns to pressure Gilden to improve labour practices, and about an ongoing campaign targeting the activities of Russell Athletic in Honduras.

Last week, news came of a significant agreement arising out of the Russell Athletic campaign.  Russell, who is the largest private sector employer in Honduras, had closed a factory after workers joined an independent union.  This set off a broad-based international campaign to pressure the company to reopen the factory, reemploy the workers, and start to recognize the freedom of Honduran workers to join unions.  It involves labour rights groups, student activists, and multi-stakeholder organizations such as the Workers’ Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Association, both of which condemned Russell’s for its labour practices in Honduras.

The new agreement requires Russell to open a new large factory and to offer jobs to dismissed workers.  As well, it requires Russell to remain neutral if workers try to join unions in the future.

I asked Kevin Thomas of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, one of the organizations involved in the campaign, what this agreement means and why it is significant.  This is fascinating stuff.  Here is Kevin’s response:

A sustained campaign by students and labour rights groups resulted in an unprecedented agreement between sportswear maker Russell Athletic and the union representing unjustly laid off workers at its former Jerzees de Honduras (JDH) factory.  Russell has agreed to open a new Honduran facility, re-hire and provide substantial economic assistance to the 1,200 former JDH workers, institute a joint union-management training program on freedom of association and commit to a position of neutrality with respect to unionization, which will open the door for union representation at all of Fruit of the Loom’s Honduran facilities (Russell Athletic is owned by Fruit of the Loom).

This agreement is a new precedent for these kinds of campaigns. Garment workers around the world who have faced factory closures and layoffs usually have to fight tooth and nail just to get their legal severance pay. This time, a concerted effort by the workers, their union, and international solidarity organizations in Canada, the USA and Europe not only won back the workers’ jobs, but opened the door to future union organizing across Honduras.

At a time when women workers are being told to lower their expectations and tighten their belts even further, this agreement is a game-changer.   Russell Athletic was under considerable pressure to repair the damage caused by its decision to close the JDH factory last January, which was widely condemned as an attempt to destroy a newly formed union (for background, see the information o the campaign at the MSN website)  

The coordinated and multi-faceted campaign used in the Russell Athletic is a model of how international networks can give teeth to labour standards enforcement in a globalized industry. The campaign involved the union, NGOs, university buyers, investors, distributors, media, and industry multi-stakeholder initiatives, all of which played a role in the victory.

At the urging of students, unions and labour rights organizations, including United Students Against Sweatshops and MSN, over 100 universities in Canada and the US that have adopted ethical purchasing policies either withdrew their licensing agreements with the company or threatened to do so unless it took action to remediate the violations. Retailers, distributors, investors and other Russell consumers were also approached.

Talks between the union and the company finally began after Russell Athletic’s membership in the industry multi-stakeholder initiative, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), was put on “Special Review” status last June. An FLA investigation carried out in response to a complaint filed by the CGT, the Clean Clothes Campaign and MSN confirmed the Worker Rights Consortium’s (WRC) earlier finding that the presence of the union was a significant factor in the FLA member company’s decision to close the JDH factory.   The FLA told the company it had to negotiate remediation with the local union (SITRAJERZEESH) and the Honduran General Workers’ Confederation (CGT), and engage with MSN and the WRC.

Evangelina Argueta, Coordinator of the CGT in Choloma, which spearheaded the fight for the former JDH workers explained the victory in these terms: 

“For Honduran workers this agreement represents real hope, especially in the midst of an unemployment crisis in our country.  The fired workers haven’t had income to support their families. Now they can be assured that they will have a job – this is the most valuable thing to come out of the agreement.  All the support we received from groups like the WRC, MSN and from all of the university students was fundamental and we are very grateful,” said Argueta. “The support of international organizations is very important.”

Fruit of the Loom is the largest private sector employer in Honduras, owning eight factories that employ over 10,000 workers, making the impact of this agreement extremely significant.

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Thanks Kevin. Great work as always.

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