How can a mango craving spiral into a labor dispute? I was talking with garment workers in Cambodia when I heard the mango story.
A pregnant garment worker had been caught sneaking mangoes into the factory despite a rule forbidding food on the production floor. Her fellow workers galvanized around a simple demand: to have a separate area to store and eat snacks during breaks.
I don’t know if these workers were ultimately given a snack area. But I do know that workers’ needs, as well as their health and safety, is better addressed if workers can exercise their right to freedom of association. This was true for the hundreds of workers I have met in Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Burma, and is something we should keep in mind today, on World Day on Worker Health and Safety.
I remember sitting with a worker in Cambodia who wept bitterly because her paltry earning made it difficult to feed her baby. Her factory had no union. Yet in another factory with a strong union, worker representatives had negotiated a small “milk powder” allowance for mothers of infants.
Worker representatives have advanced creative solutions in collective bargaining agreements. These include paid sick leave for antenatal care for pregnant workers; creating a “rotating” worker position designed to replace tired or sick workers for short periods without “disrupting” production; and adjusting the working hours of pregnant women so they could avoid uncomfortable rush hour commutes.
Apparel brands should conduct freedom of association risk assessments in their supply chains. Hiring third party monitors to do so is not enough. They should count the unions in each supplier factory and see if any collective bargaining agreements exist at the factory level. If none do, brands should find out if workers are being intimidated or pressured to not organize.
Increasingly, brands are signing framework agreements with global unions to promote freedom of association. This is good. But these also need transparency. A good model is the approach taken by the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
All companies—including those that have signed such agreements like H&M, ASOS, Tchibo, and Inditex, which owns Zara—should publicly report their progress on freedom of association and share good practices.
Freedom of association can be a bridge enabling workers to have a mango snack, as well as a safe, healthy, and decent workplace.