What have we done?

In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka we have set up several training and exchange programmes for their members in the last several years. These trainings cover topics such as legal rights, including women workers rights, organising a factory union and negotiation. But also issues like the global garment industry, sexism and patriarchy and the labour law are touched. Usually at least 50% or more of the participants on at training programmes are women and there is a democratic system where branches select workers to participate in training. The training programme is capable of delivering results.

In Bangladesh the NGWF has conducted a research in five H&M supply factories on working conditions. This led to German trade unionists and works council members themselves funding two organisers in Bangladesh to organise in factories supplying H&M and communicate with retail workers from H&M (and other companies like Wal-Mart) that produce in Bangladesh. German H&M project group members together with a Bangladesh garment worker and union representatives from the NGWF travelled to Stockholm in 2004, requesting H&M to:

  • Disclose list of suppliers (Nike lists suppliers, can serve as example). The H&M reaction was: they will not open their supplier list (“balance between openness and competition”). In case of concrete questions / problems from NGWF, they promised to pass information on single suppliers, but not give the complete list.
  • Amend payment of living wage to H&M Code of Conduct. H&M reaction was: “aspirational”, but “not possible” at present.
  • Increase the wage for helpers to 1,800.00BDT. H&M reaction was: they would not support this at present, but they might re-consider it if the MFA forum initiative does not come up with an approach to a living wage soon.

Through this lobbying effort, H&M accepted the development of a “communication channel” between H&M, works council members and the NGWF and offered to have regular meetings with NGWF in Dhaka. Regarding the findings from the five factories, H&M followed up the research, and bought the results of their investigations back to the NGWF. In 2005, eight German trade unionists who are retail workers in H&M and Wal-Mart and textile workers went to Bangladesh. They were able to follow up on the NGWF research and requests to H&M through discussions with the production office of H&M. H&M asked suppliers to change major violations of their code of conduct, which was seen as a major success. The delegation was also able to follow up on and enforce H&M stated openness to communicate with the NGWF.

Organising is difficult and much work is done in secrecy. Any organising work in the export processing zones, until recently has been undertaken in complete secrecy. This is because if management determines (or even thinks) that workers are involved in union activity, then they will immediately dismiss them. Nonetheless the NGWF has been able to make contact with workers from 65 factories across seven EPZs. As mentioned in section (above) a new law recently enacted on 18 July 2004 that allows the formation of WRWC (Workers Representation and Welfare Committee) and from 1 November 2006 allows WA (Workers Associations) though without full trade union rights.

In Sri Lanka the FTZ&GSEU fought a long and difficult struggle during 2003 for the recognition of one of its branches, at the Jaqalanka factory in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone. Organisers and members faced intimidation, abuse and death threats in their struggle to have their trade union recognised. The ExChains project was a part of an international campaign, set up by FTZ&GSEU and spread information about the struggle through its network of workers, union activists and to the German public. ExChains also contributed to the pressure on the company by encouraging its affiliates to send protest letters, as requested by FTZ&GSEU, which a large number of them did. Ultimately, five months later and due to the bravery of workers at Jaqalanka, the intense support of the FTZ&GSEU and its international campaign, the branch union at Jaqalanka was finally recognised and continues, successfully representing its members to this day.

Als in Sri Lanka, three collective bargaining agreements have been signed in the garment industry. The third of these and the first in the FTZ&GSEU history was signed in October 2006 with the Polytex Garments factory. The agreement guarantees, among other things, a yearly wage increase and a yearly bonus for employees;

ExChains has also built a network of union activists in Germany. These groups support each other in their negations with management, the development of counter-strategies to out-sourcing and reorganising practices, etc. At the DEVETEX-Gruppe for instance negations started in the spring of 2006 work-time and the consequences of flexibilisation. And in the 2004 German and Swedish workers from H&M and IKEA met to talk about the aggression, harassment and intimidation they faced from management who opposed them organising a works council and how to organize against these and other union busting activities. An outcome of the meeting was to document how H&M in Germany is attacking and acting against the ILO convention on the right to organise. Since then delegations of Swedish and German workers have met again and strengthened their mutual work.

The local groups in Germany also actively support their colleagues in Mexico, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka by putting pressure on garment companies in Germany and other European countries like IKEA and H&M with subsidiaries in the free trade zones of Asia and Mexico. When in 2005 64 workers died in Bangladesh because a factory collapsed German workers organised several solidarity-activities in which money was raised for the families of the death workers. Karstadt Quelle was one of four German companies sourcing from Spectrum at the time of its collapse. ExChains provided Clean Clothes Campaign with information and organised direct meetings of NGWF representatives and top management of KQ. Management of KQ agreed to support a trust fund.

Two times a year ExChains produces a newsletter in German and English that is spread it among the workers and unions in the participating countries. You can find these newsletters here [ include link to the page with the newsletters, is called “Newsletters” on right-side column]

We have also organized several international exchanges of (women) workers to and fro Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Mexico and Germany and between German and Turkish workers because we think that actually meeting your fellow workers in their own plants, towns and houses creates strong ties. Our exchanges are always prepared by the participants themselves and consist of plant trips, meetings with workers and unions, often also meetings with representatives from management, activities such as demonstrations or sit-ins. During these visits the participants find out that even though there are major differences in work and life conditions, especially with the German activists, there are also a lot of common challenges such as work load, forced overtime, pressure, discrimination, organizing problems…


Women in Senegal

Worker centres

Introduction to ExChains

What is ExChains about?

Who is involved in ExChains?

What have we done?

What can you do?

Do you want to read more?


Globalisation: cheap labour, cheap products
...and women workers

Mexico and the maquiladoras

...and unions

Sri Lanka and the Free Trade Zones

...and workers

Bangladesh and the Free Trade Zones
...and unions

Turkey and the garment industry


Workers in Bangladesh

Workers in Bangladesh