Migrants fight to organise
The majority of garment workers, whether they are migrant workers or not, face significant problems in exercising their right to freedom of association. For migrant workers there are specific barriers that make the task of even more difficult.
In many countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, migrant workers are not allowed by law to form their own trade union organisations. Although they are legally able to join local trade union, workers will often be given conflicting information on their entitlements under law.
Malaysia denies migrant workers the right to form trade unions, as this right is only accorded to citizens. Similarly migrant workers are denied the right to hold office in any trade unions. Migrant workers, however do have the right to join trade unions, and enjoy the rights and benefits contained in any Collective Bargaining Agreement between the union and the employer.
Even where the right to join a local trade union is not prohibited by law, agents and employers may include prohibitions on the joining of local associations in contracts for example, or will deliberately misconstrue certain laws.
Even where there are no legal obstacles to migrant workers joining unions significant other barriers remain. Many migrant workers may have a stronger identity as migrants than as workers, with a greater affiliation to their national group than to the industry they work in.
"Migrants .. rarely identify themselves as a '[garment] worker' … these are jobs that they did not choose to do and which no-one else gives value to. With no worker identity, it is difficult to come together as 'workers', to risk livelihood and safety for an identity which holds no importance." - MAP Foundation, Thailand.
Even where a worker identity can be established, migrant workers may be unaware of what rights they are entitled to as workers, or what a trade union can and should do. For migrants coming from countries like Burma, where trade union organisations have been prohibited for years, or Vietnam, where they are government controlled, workers may have a limited or nonexistent experience of trade unions or may be suspicious of union organisations.
Union leaders are likely to be the same nationality as employers, police and others in authority, migrant workers maybe suspicious of their motives or unwilling to share their problems or concerns. This is particularly an issue for women migrant workers where most union leaders are men. There is therefore a need to build trust between migrant communities and local union representatives, which may be a long, difficult and time consuming process.
Lack of leadership
Few, if any, unions include migrant workers in their leadership, nor are they often represented on committees. This may be because this is prohibited by law. In Malaysia, this is due to union regulations which require workers to have been a union member for over three years prior to taking on a position in the union.
As most workers will finish their contract within this time assuming a position is more or less impossible. Even if these restrictions can be overcome migrant workers are less likely to be elected than local workers. In Thailand, labour laws prohibit migrant workers from taking up leadership positions within trade unions.
Further barriers to organising migrant workers include language and cultural difficulties and the divisions imposed by employers (e.g wage differences, shift patterns, accommodation).
Garment worker unions are often stretched for resources and paying for the translation of materials and providing interpreters for meetings may not be a priority for most. In some cases there is some reluctance from unions to put resources into organising migrant workers, whose membership and participation in the union is likely to be time limited and possibly controversial for some of the grassroots, local membership.