Garment workers need empowering solutions. Trade unions are avoided as workers fear being fired. The culture of fear is so strong, that workers prefer to talk and act anonymously when it comes to abuses at their workplace. Given the difficulties of unionisation, we approach a more subtle tool: community organising (CO) inside garment factories. CO offers workers a chance to join anonymously, while still gaining the advantages of acting collectively.
Prahova, South-Center Romania
Most garment workers live in rural areas with few job opportunities, so they find themselves in the situation of choosing between accepting labor violations or being unemployed. Both at home and at work, their environment discourages civic cohesion, organising and engagement.
Endemic poverty, salaries way below the living wage -and sometimes even lower than the legal minimum wage- unpaid extra hours, gruelling working conditions, managers threatening to fire workers who reveal abuses inside the factory or form trade unions are some of the systemic issues faced by Romanian garment workers.
Our project aims to address all the challenges faced by garment employees faced, by empowering and organising. We will start with a pilot project that can be further replicated at a national scale
There are over 200.000 employees in the industry, plus the informal workers, estimated to be thousands. Most of them are women over 35, living in rural areas, and travelling by bus to work.
We will develop a pilot project targeting a big factory, where we identified labor and human rights abuses, as well as leaders and workers willing to organise. Workers produce clothes for famous brands, under recurrent labor violations: unpaid extra hours, intimidation, improper ventilation in the work-spaces which causes fainting, and so on.
Unionisation failed in this factory, workers being partially discouraged by the employer and partially by the lack of trust in trade unions, so community organising will be used as an alternative approach.
For piloting a project of organising garment workers at factory level, our 10 main activities are:
Identifying factories where workers face violations, and are willing to organise, but not form a trade union. We already identified such a factory and workers in Southern Romania, where we can start the pilot project. We aim to identify 3 other factories.
Training a former garment worker to become a community organiser. We identified the worker and the organisation capable of offering such training.
Identifying leaders inside the factory, and workers willing to organise for asking for their rights.
Identifying the brands who source in the factories, analysing their codes of conduct and contacting them in relation to the abuses mentioned by workers. Brands have a significant leverage on factories when it comes to improving workers’ condition.
Gaining workers trust, informing them of our approach and means of support, offering them the option of joining anonymously.
Organising workers, establishing regular meetings between workers and the community organiser.
Addressing the most urgent needs: putting pressure on the factory, putting pressure on the brands, using public pressure for the goals to be met.
Collaborating with our network of lawyers, or contract a lawyer in case it is needed.
Maintaining a relationship with workers.
Improving and replicating the model.
The project will offer a new model of organising inside factories where traditional methods have failed.
Experience has shown that without organising, individual workers who complain about the labor conditions and ask for their rights are easily targeted and eliminated. Even when violations catch the media attention, working conditions tend to improve for a while, but get back to business as usual.
These can be avoided by forming strong groups of organised workers. After addressing labor issues, they can ensure sustainable change for the better. Organised workers can also become dialogue partners with the brands, so brands do not solely rely on auditing results when it comes to labor conditions. Community organising offers empowerment, while avoiding some downsides of unionisation.
Communities around garment factories can become a relevant dialogue partner at the societal level, pressing for the labor laws to be respected, or improved. The groups can also gather bargaining power related to increasing wages, so salaries can match the true living costs.
In addition, we believe that organising and empowering workers does not only result in improving labor conditions, but also builds more aware and active communities of citizens.
Laura covered this industry in the past 6 years as a journalist (work featured by ARTE TV, Reuters etc), researcher and activist. She studied community organising in the US, became a Milena Jesenská Fellow in 2019. In 2020, Laura started campaigning for garment workers rights. She was the Country Case Coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, and performed successful advocacy and fundraising.
Georgiana has an extended experience in the field of strategic human rights litigations, as well as advocacy for human rights, labor and gender equality. She graduated Cambridge and Leeds Universities, and has experienced first hand the issues in the garment industry, as the daughter of a garment worker.
Bianca works on sustainability, while Diana has extended experience on human rights.
Funding requested from Civic Europe
Training community organisers: 1500
Legal assistance: 1800
Research on factories: 1500
Communication & PR: 2000
Travel and accommodation: 500
We would like to know your opinion on our project! Please share if you know similar approaches, or other kind of approaches in tackling similar issues. Many thanks!