The OECD panel discussion titled ‘Binding company-union agreements and their role in due diligence’ considered the role that legally binding agreements voluntarily entered into by apparel companies and global trade unions, can play in identifying and addressing labour and human rights risks in garment and footwear supply chains.

The first panellist was keen to defend suppliers’ rights and argued there “must be protections to ensure that employers who signed the agreement are also protected”.

However, most of the panellists were keen to focus on the benefits of a bottom-up approach to due diligence where workers’ voices are heard through trade unions.

The second panellist described the Dindigul Agreement as “a perfect case of how unions and brands can come together to improve working conditions in the workplace.”

Dindigul is an enforceable brand agreement (EBA) in which multinational companies legally commit to labour and allies to use their supply chain relationships to support a worker or union-led programme at certain factories or worksites.

The panellist highlighted: “Company union agreements are basically a kind of collective bargaining agreement where workers, employers and importers can negotiate standards and use the agreement to implement or enforce standards – plain and simple.”

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The panellist added that when independent and democratic unions are part of the process, they create a check and balance system: “Independent democratic unions advocate for workers, they use collective power and ensure workplace democracy which strengthens businesses and our supply chains.

“Unions allow workers to contribute to the businesses in which they work upon and rely on for their livelihoods and to support their families. And the Dindigul agreement is a key example of it.”

A third speaker stated that without regulations or dimensionally binding agreements workers and employers are on different planets completely: “Employers hold all economic powers and they will use them so without legal regulation and binding agreements would workers still be safe?”

The speaker shared the right to organise and the right to collective bargaining were groundbreaking conventions after World War II and “implementing them is the “most essential thing” as they “lay the foundation for a more level playing field”.

The third speaker highlighted that most countries do respect the right to organise, but was quick to point out there is a big difference between ratification and implementation”.

The speaker shared that many countries have ratified yet still allow massive violations within their own territory and there are only two things that can force implementation — strong unions and cooperative governments in the rest of the world.

“Strong unions are able to negotiate good collective agreements and settle their issues with employers or according to the demands of their members. Weak unions and hostile political environments cannot do that. This is where the international trade union movement comes into play.”

The third speaker concluded: “You have to allow free and independent trade unions, both politically in your country but also in your business. That is what levels the playing field and we can all dream of a world without forced labour but it won’t happen without democratic trade unions – it’s as simple as that.”