Multinational textile brands for social dialogue

Making social dialogue work at the factory floor in the Bulgarian textile industry

With support of the ILO, three global brands from the garment industry and their Bulgarian suppliers recently met placing fundamental rights at work at the center of their sustainability strategies while also making a clear business case for this approach. Participants of the workshop held at the end of March in Sofia concluded that the low level of wages in the garment industy was part of a more complex situation to be further addressed, along with skills mismatches and the difficulty to attract young workers for the industry.

News | 10 May 2018
In Bulgaria, 1 out of 5 people work in companies that are part of a global supply chain. The garment industry plays an important role and is a major employer with about 80,000 people working for an ever-growing number of suppliers, exporting 90% of products. With an average gross monthly salary of 550 EUR, the level of wages is generally low in the country. The textile industry usually does not offer much more than the minimum wage, currently at around EUR 260. The level of unionisation is poor: about 4-5% of workers are represented by a trade union in the textile sector, while in the footware and leather sectors there is no representation at all.

The multinational brands Inditex, H&M and ASOS also outsource production to Bulgarian suppliers. In their global sustainability strategies, they pledge for a central role of freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and non-discrimination in the workplace as reflected in the ILO fundamental conventions. The companies approached ILO to facilitate an exchange on good practices and challenges of the industry among the brands, their suppliers, the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour, and employers’ and workers’ organisations in Bulgaria.

The global brands outlined their activities undertaken in order to ensure the effective application of international labour standards. Inditex and their global trade union counterpart IndustriALL signed a Global Framework Agreement in 2007, which was renewed in 2014. Based on this agreement, INDITEX commits to observe all fundamental conventions of the ILO throughout the global supply chain. The same commitment is also reflected in the Inditex Code of Conduct. H&M has been implementing dispute resolution mechanisms in its suppliers, national monitoring committees and training workers’ representatives in Turkey. ASOS’ sustainability strategy has as a core component the respect of freedom of association and gender equality in the workplace.

The Bulgarian suppliers signalled problems in finding engineers, skilled and motivated workers who could secure the future of the industry in Bulgaria. The trade unions pointed out the lack of interest of employers’organizations to engage into collective bargaining at industry-level. Currently, in Bulgaria there are only 18 company collective agreements and no sectorial one.

The ILO shared recent research results from its Better Work Programme which is a multi partner alliance with the objective to improve working conditions in the garment industry and make the sector more competitive. Empirical evidence shows that workers’ self-reported well-being correlates with compliance including core labour standards, and the assessment from fellow workers on quality of working conditions.

Dan Cork, ILO Better Work Programme made it clear that improving working conditions is an investment, not an additional cost. This conclusion is based on solid research showing that a good cooperation at the workplace between managers and workers goes hand in hand with higher performance of the enterprise.

Anne-Marie Mureau of IndustriALL concluded that „Bulgaria lost 25% of its population in the past 30 years. The garment industry is not attractive for young people who prefer to leave the country to find better work and living conditions abroad. It is a shared interest to make the sector more attractive and sustainable in the long-term.”