This chapter analyses the agency strategies of three local garment unions that are active in the Bangalore export-garment cluster: the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), the Garment Labour Union (GLU) and the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KGWU). As stated in Sect. 5.2.3, the roots of all three unions lie in an NGO-led community organising project with garment workers financed through Oxfam International and carried out by the Bangalore-based labour rights NGOs, FEDINA and Cividep. All three unions qualify as  local unions since the geographical distribution of their members is limited to the Bangalore garment cluster.

All three garment unions can, furthermore, be classified as independent unions, since—as opposed to India’s twelve central trade union federations—they do not maintain close ties to any specific political party. Local independent unions face particular challenges in building bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. These challenges result from the complex, networked structure of the labour control regime (see Chap. 6), which is constituted through practices and relations that stretch beyond the territory of the Bangalore export-garment cluster and, therefore, beyond the local unions’ direct sphere of action. On the other hand, local garment unions in the Bangalore export-garment cluster face challenges in building bargaining power vis-à-vis employers due to their limited political and institutional power and financial resources. Whereas India’s central trade unions can use political leverage and ties as well as financial and associational resources from historically grown, large political membership bases to exercise power over employers (and state actors), the three Bangalore garment unions had to build their membership bases from scratch over the past 10 to 15 years. Since their foundation, all three unions have engaged in building alliances at various levels—i.e. over various distances—to secure financial resources and leverage coalitional power resources in labour disputes.

In the following, I lay out the different agency strategies through which GATWU, GLU and KGWU have sought to build bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and the state actors to improve conditions for workers in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. To this end, I draw on the relational framework for analysing the agency of local unions at specific nodes of a GPN developed in Sect. 3.3. Following this framework for analysis, I understand the agency strategy of each union as emerging from the intersection of the various networked sets of practices and relations through which unions construct three spaces of labour agency: (1) spaces of organising linking union organisers, workers and union members; (2) spaces of collaboration linking local unions to other external labour and non-labour actors in solidary ways; and (3) spaces of contestation constructed around specific labour struggles, linking unions and their allies with employers or state actors as ‘targets’ of unions’ actions and demands. As laid out in Sect. 3.3, I argue that within these spaces, unions and workers can develop strategic capacities and power resources which, in turn, enable unions to build bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and thus to win concessions for workers. At the same time, the networked relationships constituting these spaces are themselves structured by power relations. As a result, resources and strategic decision-making competencies may be distributed asymmetrically within these relationships. When resources and strategic decision-making competencies are centralised and controlled by few actors within the union or by actors external to the union, unions’ capacities to build bargaining power and strategic capacities remain limited.

In the remainder of this chapter, I will analyse the specific practices and relations through which each union constructs spaces of organising, collaboration and contestation and analyse to which extent these practices and relations enable workers and unionists to develop strategic capacities. Developing workers’ and unionists’ strategic capacities is vital for building associational and organisational power resources—the two power resources understood as central for building bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and the state (see Sects. 2.4.3 and 2.4.4). The analysis is structured as follows: Sect. 7.1 introduces the agency strategies of GATWU at two different points in time—first, in GATWU’s early years as a union project led by the NGO Cividep (Sect. 7.1.1), and second, in the period since GATWU’s strategic break with Cividep in 2011 (Sect. 7.1.2). Section 7.2 then turns to the second local garment union, GLU, which emerged as a spin-off from GATWU in 2012. Section 7.3 finally analyses the agency strategy of KGWU, the third local garment union in the cluster, founded as a spin-off from GATWU in 2009. While GLU, until date, maintains close ties with Cividep, KGWU maintains close ties with FEDINA. In contrast, GATWU has sought to remain financially and strategically independent from NGOs after breaking with Cividep in 2011. Figure 7.1 visualises the evolution of the three local unions in the Bangalore export-garment cluster.

Fig. 7.1
A timeline from 2002 till today has stops at 2002, 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2012. The respective labels of start of community organizing project, registration of G A T W U, registration of K G W U and break between F E D I N A and cividep, break between G A T W U and cividep, and registration of G L U. The timeline from 2012 till today has the label parallel operation of unions of G A T W U, K G W U, and G L U.

Source Author based on interview data

Timeline of the evolution of the three Bangalore-based local garment unions.

In the next section, I focus on GATWU as the oldest of the three Bangalore garment unions and lay out the evolution of the union’s strategic agency approach over the past 15 years since its foundation.

1 Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU)

This section analyses the strategic agency approach by GATWU, the oldest of the three Bangalore garment unions. At the time research was conducted, GATWU had about 10,000 members, according to its own reports. Starting as the union arm of the local NGO Cividep, GATWU took a strategic turn in 2011 with the decision to become strategically and financially independent from Cividep. The decision to become independent from NGO project funding led to a wide-ranging transformation of the practices and relations through which GATWU constructed spaces of organising, spaces of collaboration and spaces of contestation. Therefore, in this section, I distinguish between two different strategic approaches underpinning GATWU’s agency in two different periods: (1) a strategic approach based on networked practices of community-based organising, transnational campaigning and ‘fire-fighting’ (i.e. tackling basic labour rights violations), which characterised GATWU’s early years under the lead of Cividep; and (2) a strategic approach that combines a focus on factory organising with the strategic goal to engage employers in collective bargaining and thereby to win concessions for workers beyond the mere implementation of basic labour rights. This second strategic approach has guided GATWU’s strategic reorientation process after its break with Cividep in 2011. Table 7.1 sums up the main characteristics of each strategic approach.

Table 7.1 Two strategic approaches underpinning GATWU’s agency before and after the break with Cividep in 2011

In the following, I will illustrate how GATWU has constructed spaces of organising, collaboration and contestation through very different practices and relations under both strategic approaches. When doing so, I will also assess the potentials and limits of each strategic approach for enabling GATWU to build lasting bargaining power and bring about sustained improvements for workers.

1.1 The Origins: Community-Based Organising, Transnational Campaigning and Fire-Fighting

This section lays out GATWU’s strategic approach from 2006 to 2011, i.e. the years right after GATWU’s foundation, when the union was still closely tied to Cividep. In interviews, GATWU activists and leaders referred to the strategic approach characterising GATWU’s agency during these years as an ‘NGO-led’ union model due to the strong influence of NGO funding on GATWU’s practices and internal relationships. Another common term used by GATWU organisers to describe their agency during this period was ‘fire-fighting’ due to the focus on remediating basic labour rights violations rather than pushing for collective bargaining. Therefore, in this chapter, I use the term fire-fighting approach to refer to GATWU’s agency strategy during their time of close collaboration with Cividep. The remainder of this section analyses the practices and relationships through which GATWU constructed spaces of organising, spaces of collaboration and spaces of contestation under the community organising, fire-fighting approach. I will show the various improvements in the working conditions that GATWU achieved through this approach. At the same time, I will discuss the limits of this approach for building sustained bargaining power vis-à-vis employers.

1.1.1 Spaces of Organising

To understand how GATWU constructed spaces of organising in its early years, it is essential to look back at the historical origins and evolution of GATWU. As previously mentioned, GATWU’s origins lie in an NGO project focussing on community work with garment workers, which started in 2002 and continued until 2011. The project was formally carried out by the local NGOs Cividep and FEDINA and financed by the international NGO Oxfam (INT8). The project aimed to start organising garment workers in Bangalore through a community-focussed ‘pre-union’ concept. This concept was directed at building awareness among women workers for their rights and at introducing the concept of collective action. The project was formally institutionalised in 2004 with the founding of the community-based women’s organisation Garment Mahila Karmikara Munnade (Engl.: Garment Women Workers’ Progress)—or short Munnade. However, organisers soon noted the limitations of a community organisation for tackling labour rights violations in the workplace: Since Munnade was registered as an NGO and not as a union, organisers could not formally intervene in workplace conflicts on behalf of workers. Against this backdrop, in 2005, Munnade and Cividep organisers founded the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), officially registered in 2006. In its early years, from 2006 to 2011, GATWU continued to work with the community-based organising approach introduced by Munnade, and there was no clear personal separation between Munnade organisers and GATWU organisers.

Following the pre-union concept, GATWU constructed relationships with workers in its earlier years in close collaboration with Munnade through two main sets of practices: forming saving groups and setting up area committees. Savings groups were formed by GATWU and Munnade organisers by gathering women garment workers from the same neighbourhood around the goal of collectively saving money: women paid a monthly amount and took turns in receiving the groups’ collected money (INT8, 39). The rationale underpinning these practices was twofold. On the one hand, saving groups were conceptualised as a tool for women workers’ economic empowerment, since many female garment workers are the primary breadwinners in their families—either because their husbands cannot find work or because they are separated. On the other hand, saving groups were conceptualised as a safe space for women to discuss shared experiences related to struggling economically and to carrying the double burden of wage and care work. Discussing these shared experiences served union organisers as an entry point for raising women garment workers’ awareness of the structural conditions of capitalism and patriarchy and develop a collective mindset—two vital pre-conditions for the unionisation process.

Building on relations with workers constructed in the saving groups, GATWU and Munnade organisers then engaged in setting up area committees to deepen relationships with those workers who appeared ready to participate in the unionisation process. As the name suggests, area committees were set up in specific areas where many garment workers lived. These areas were primarily located in the adjacent neighbourhoods to the (back then) still-growing geographical concentrations of garment factories along Mysore Road and Hosur Road (see Sect. 5.2.2). In area committee meetings, which usually brought together about 15 women, GATWU and Munnade organisers combined discussions of workers’ collective experiences in the community and workplace with more structured practices of educating women workers about their civic and labour rights. When workers reported any workplace issues in saving group or area meetings, they were offered to join GATWU. Then GATWU organisers would intervene with the respective management on behalf of the worker. To become a member of GATWU, workers had to pay an initial administrative fee of 20 Rupees and an annual payment of 60 Rupees (approx. 0.80 US$).

In addition to forming saving groups and setting up area committee meetings, GATWU organisers also sought to build relationships with workers through more proactive and direct organising practices such as distributing leaflets in front of factory gates and engaging with individual workers in conversations after their shifts in front of the factory. Given the overall community organising approach, GATWU’s organising practices in these first years were not primarily directed at gaining a strong membership base in specific factories but rather at increasing GATWU’s overall membership in specific areas. The focus on organising workers in specific areas rather than in specific factories needs to be understood as the result of three intertwined conditions shaping GATWU’s organising strategy during its first years: First, as mentioned before, GATWU’s organising practices during the years following its foundation showed a strong path-dependency to the ‘pre-union’ community organising project, out of which GATWU had emerged. GATWU continued to collaborate closely with Munnade to the point where there was no clear personal separation between GATWU and Munnade organisers. Hence, during these early years, GATWU’s organising practices constructed the community rather than the factory as the primary space for organising.

Second, GATWU’s initial community-focussed organising strategy was favoured by the specific geographical and labour market conditions of the Bangalore export-garment industry during the 2000s: As mentioned earlier, during these years, the industry was still concentrated in two main areas along two major traffic outlets, Mysore Road and Hosur Road, and workers lived in these same areas, often in walking distance to the factories. Therefore, at the end of the workday, workers were not in a rush to catch a bus or Rickshaw already waiting for them after their shift (see Sect. 6.7) and hence were able to engage in conversations with organisers. In this line, GATWU leaders report that it was a frequent organising practice under the community organising approach for union organisers to accompany groups of workers on their walk home and use this time to discuss problems in the factory and the benefits of unionisation.

Third and last, the community-based organising model that aimed at increasing membership at the community rather than at the factory level also needs to be understood as shaped by the specific relationships that GATWU had with international NGOs. These NGOs were financing GATWU’s activities and staff. For donor NGOs, GATWU’s capacity to engage with as many workers as possible, e.g. through training sessions or family counselling, was more important than GATWU’s capacity to build strong ties with a few workers in selected factories. As donor organisations, NGOs aimed to maximise the outreach of their funded projects (see Sect. 7.1.1.2). In response to donors’ focus on increasing membership quantity rather than quality, GATWU organisers’ interactions with many union members were limited to collecting complaints from workers, which GATWU organisers would then discuss with management on behalf of workers.

Against this backdrop, in interviews, GATWU leaders today spoke of having constructed the union as a ‘service-providing’ entity for their members during these years. This union model stands in contrast to the concept of the union as a membership-based organisation, in which members are actively involved in the union’s strategic decisions. Consequently, under the strategic community organising approach, GATWU’s intra-union relations were characterised by the centralisation of strategic activities and capacities on full-time GATWU organisers. Strategic capacities included for example the capacity to organise workers or to discuss with management.

As a result, GATWU’s community-based organising strategy had mixed outcomes in relation to building the unions’ associational and organisational power resources. On the one hand, increasing overall membership numbers helped GATWU organisers to gain legitimacy as representing garment workers and to engage in dialogue with management about labour rights violations. Moreover, through the community organising approach, GATWU mobilised several thousand workers for punctual public protests. Through these mobilisations, GATWU achieved inter alia substantial raises in the statutory minimum wage (see also Sect. 7.1.1.3). On the other hand, the area-based organising approach had its limits with regard to translating associational power resources into workplace bargaining power. Despite having achieved a membership of about 4000 members by 2011, GATWU did not have the associational power resources to engage in prolonged industrial action at the workplace for two reasons. First, as a result of GATWU’s focus on organising workers in specific communities rather than in specific factories, GATWU’s members were distributed across a large number of factories with relatively low membership in individual factories. Second, where GATWU had a significant number of members in a specific factory, these members did not have the strategic capabilities to plan, execute and sustain prolonged industrial action. These capabilities were centralised with GATWU’s full-time organisers, who however, did not have access to factories. The role of workers inside the factories was, in turn, mainly limited to informing full-time organisers about problems or labour rights violations in their factories.

As stated earlier, GATWU’s community organising practices were closely intertwined with the practices through which GATWU built and maintained relationships with Munnade at the local level and international donor NGOs at the international level. The next section will analyse these practices and relations in more detail.

1.1.2 Spaces of Collaboration

Two types of collaborative relationships constructed by GATWU with external actors played a significant role in GATWU’s initial strategic community organising and fire-fighting approach: (1) relations with the community-organisation Munnade and the NGO Cividep at the local level and (2) relations with donor NGOs and consumer campaigning networks from the Global North at the international level. First, GATWU’s close collaboration with Munnade for organising workers in their communities through saving groups and area committees represented a central element of GATWU’s strategic approach. The collaboration with Munnade represented a source of coalitional power for GATWU since closely working with Munnade allowed GATWU access to a workforce that would otherwise not have been accessible to GATWU for two reasons. First, given factories as tightly controlled spaces (see Sect. 6.4), GATWU organisers could not organise workers inside the workplace and hence had to seek other ways to get in touch with workers. Second, many workers were first-time industrial workers from a rural background who perceived unions mainly as political organisations or as ‘troublemakers’ according to the dominant management discourse. Therefore, approaching workers through Munnade was an important practice for building workers’ trust and familiarising them with the idea and concept of unionisation. Accordingly, approaching workers through a community organisation rather than directly through the union also allowed GATWU to build workers’ collective mindset starting from women workers’ collective experiences in the household and the community before transferring this mindset to the workplace. Underlying this community-based organising approach was a deeply intersectional understanding of workers’ identity as not only shaped by capitalist relations of production but also by relations of gender, caste or geographical provenience. This understanding provided the base for the close collaboration with Munnade.

Closely intertwined with GATWU’s collaboration with Munnade was also GATWU’s collaboration with the local labour rights NGO Cividep, through which both GATWU and Munnade full-time activists were formally employed. Cividep acted as an intermediary organisation between Oxfam International, who funded Munnade’s and GATWU’s organising work. This intermediation by Cividep was necessary since, according to Indian law, unions are not allowed to receive funds from international organisations. In this sense, GATWU’s collaboration with Cividep also represented a source of coalitional power since it allowed GATWU to access financial resources from Oxfam. GATWU’s dependence on financing from Oxfam, however, had mixed effects on the union’s capacities to build associational power: On the one hand, GATWU’s collaboration with Cividep and Oxfam enabled GATWU to fund full-time organiser positions as well as various training sessions and activities with workers.

On the other hand, however, GATWU’s relationship with Oxfam and Cividep was characterised by the largely unilateral dependence of GATWU on these organisations. As a result, the administrative requirements of Oxfam and Cividep largely shaped GATWU organisers’ work profiles. A significant part of full-time organisers’ time was spent preparing research reports or documenting the activities conducted within the project context—time resources that could not be invested in actual organising work (FN10). Moreover, the collaboration with Cividep and Oxfam shaped internal union relations. Since funding for the unions’ activities came from external project funding rather than members’ financial contributions, relationships of accountability inside the union were oriented towards Cividep as the formal employer and Oxfam as the funding organisation. Rather than discussing strategic decisions with union members, GATWU organisers took decisions in coordination with Cividep. Consequently, the external accountability relations with Cividep and Oxfam created significant barriers to fostering internal union democracy and participation. Democratic and participatory internal union relations are, however, a pre-condition for building lasting associational and organisational power that can be transformed into workplace bargaining power (see Sect. 2.4.1).

Besides the collaborations with Munnade and Cividep, GATWU, secondly, also engaged in constructing collaborative relations with consumer campaigning networks from the Global North. As highlighted in Chap. 5, a significant challenge for local unions in the Bangalore garment cluster to improve working conditions lies in the fact that geographically distant retailers as lead firms significantly shape labour processes as well as wage and employment relations through their sourcing practices. Against this backdrop, from its early days on, GATWU organisers understood that besides targeting local manufacturers, they also had to tackle retailers from the Global North and strategically use their leverage over manufacturers. To this end, GATWU organisers engaged in building relationships with various consumer-led organisations and campaigning networks from the Global North. In particular, GATWU built relationships with the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a European network of consumer and civil society organisations, and with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a US-based labour rights monitoring organisation led by students and universities. The practices through which GATWU built relations with these organisations were mainly focussed on using the urgent appeal mechanisms provided by the CCC and the WRC (see also Merk 2009). Urgent appeal mechanisms allow workers and unions to lodge a complaint about labour rights violations in a specific factory, which the CCC and the WRC then bring to the attention of the brands sourcing from that factory. If brands are unwilling to ensure that labour rights violations in their supplier factories are corrected, the CCC and the WRC conduct public consumer campaigns appealing to brands’ responsibility for ensuring workers’ rights in their supply chains. Actions by the CCC or WRC usually draw on leveraging moral power resources vis-à-vis brands through public ‘naming and shaming’ campaigns. The result of interactions between GATWU and the CCC or WRC around a specific urgent appeal was either determined by the fact that all sources for leveraging moral pressure had been seized without a result or—in successful cases—that a settlement between the union and the local management could be reached.

Given GATWU’s lack of a strong membership inside factories, leveraging the coalitional power of the CCC and the WRC was an essential element of GATWU’s community organising and ‘fire-fighting’ approach: Since GATWU could not exercise power over employers through engaging in collective industrial action at the workplace level, the union had to rely on the moral power exercised by consumer organisations to activate retailers’ leverage over manufacturers. In GATWU’s early days, large-scale labour rights violations were still present in the Bangalore export-garment cluster. The fact that GATWU pushed employers (and state actors) to implement basic legal labour standards through transnational campaigning brought about important improvements for workers. The following section illustrates how GATWU activated relationships with consumer campaigning organisations from the Global North when constructing spaces of contestation around specific labour struggles. It will further assess to what extent these practices of transnational campaigning enabled GATWU to build lasting bargaining power vis-à-vis employers.

1.1.3 Spaces of Contestation

In the years following its foundation, GATWU constructed antagonistic relations with employers and state actors mainly through practices of what their activists today refer to as ‘fire-fighting’. The term ‘fire-fighting’ refers to the fact that their interventions with employers and state actors focussed primarily on rectifying labour law violations. GATWU organisers mainly reacted to the various illegal practices of labour control performed by factory managers: they sought to stop these rather than proactively formulating and negotiating demands beyond implementing basic labour rights. GATWU’s focus on rectifying labour rights violations and ensuring minimum labour standards in its early years also needs to be understood in the context of the general state of the garment industry in the Bangalore export-garment cluster during the 2000s: During these years, large-scale, very severe violations of basic labour rights were still present in Bangalore export-garment factories, especially in the many smaller, informalised factories. It was common, for example, for workers to not receive employment contracts and to not receive wages for several months. Moreover, as illustrated already in Sect. 6.3, during these years, the legal-institutional minimum framework was not implemented, with periods of up to nine years passing between minimum wage revisions (as opposed to the legally prescribed revisions at intervals of three to five years). Against this background, during the first years of GATWU’s existence, GATWU organisers constructed spaces of contestation mainly through two sets of practices: (1) intervening in cases of labour rights violations at individual factories and (2) campaigning for minimum wage increases at the state level.

1.1.3.1 Selectively Intervening in Labour Law Violations at the Factory Level

The first set of practices through which GATWU constructed spaces of contestation under the early fire-fighting approach was through selectively intervening in specific incidents of labour law violations, which were reported to GATWU by workers during saving groups or area committees or gate meetings. Common violations included, for example, non-payment or late payment of wages, lack of drinking water or illegal factory closures. GATWU’s interventions in these cases consisted of three intertwined practices at various levels: (1) writing an official complaint letter to the respective factory management at the workplace level, (2) lodging a legal complaint with the competent government authorities at the state level and (3) involving consumer campaigning organisations at the international level, if the management remained unresponsive.

Given GATWU’s lack of workplace bargaining power due to low membership levels in individual factories, GATWU usually combined actions at the factory and state levels as a first intervention. On the one hand, GATWU informed the management about workers’ complaints and asked the management to engage in dialogue with GATWU to find a solution. On the other hand, GATWU also usually filed a complaint with the labour department or the Department of Factories, Boilers, Industrial Health and Safety, depending on the type of complaint. Issues representing industrial disputes such as non- or late payment of wages, illegal dismissals or factory closures are covered under the Indian Industrial Disputes Act. They, therefore, require a complaint at the Labour Department, where a tripartite conciliation process is initiated. If no settlement can be reached, the issue is referred to the labour court for adjudication.

As illustrated in Sect. 6.5, court processes, however, take several years and are therefore limited sources of institutional power for unions. Issues concerning factory infrastructure and health and safety provisions are, in turn, covered under the Indian Factory Act and, therefore, require a complaint at the Department of Factories, Boilers, Industrial Health and Safety. Complaints at this department are usually followed by an inspection carried out by labour inspectors from the department. As opposed to officers from the labour department, labour inspectors have the authority to give the factory management direct orders for correction if any violations of the Factory Act are detected in the inspection. Whereas institutional power resources accruing to unions from filing a complaint with the labour department is hence somewhat limited (see also Sect. 6.5), filing a complaint with the Department of Factories, Boilers, Industrial Health and Safety can give unions leverage over employers when a labour inspection is conducted. Consequently, GATWU’s combined practices of writing complaint letters to factory managers and parallelly filing legal complaints with the competent state authorities represented an effective strategy, particularly in cases where labour law violations concerned basic factory infrastructure, e.g. when a factory lacked drinking water or ventilation.

In cases of more severe and less easily documentable labour rights violations, merely combining practices of writing complaint letters to management and filing legal complaints was, however, usually not enough to push employers for corrective action. In these cases, GATWU, therefore, relied on drawing international consumer campaigning organisations into spaces of contestation to leverage additional coalitional power resources. Cases of labour rights violations in which GATWU drew international consumer campaigning organisations into the space of contestation included, for example, physical abuse of workers in a factory producing inter alia for the brand G-Star. Another case was an incident in which a worker’s baby died at a factory creche due to a lack of medical provisions at the factory. In both cases, when the management did not respond to GATWU’s demands for corrective action and compensation payments, GATWU resorted to involving international campaigning and consumer organisations such as the CCC and the WRC. By writing letters to the brands sourcing from the respective factories and through public media campaigns, these consumer organisations pushed brands to intervene and to exercise pressure on local factory management for corrective action. As a result, the working environment in the respective factories could be improved, and compensation payments for individual workers achieved.

To what extent did GATWU’s practices of ‘fire-fighting’ and activating alliances with international consumer campaigning networks enable GATWU to build sustained bargaining power vis-à-vis employers? Overall, their strategy of drawing international consumer organisations into spaces of contestation constructed around labour rights violations in individual factories had mixed effects with regard to strengthening GATWU’s positions vis-à-vis employers. On the one hand, activating relationships with international consumer campaigning organisations strengthened GATWU’s standing in relation to local factory managers. Thanks to the influence of consumer campaigning organisations, GATWU could exert pressure on management and achieve corrections of labour rights violations despite low membership numbers in these factories. As a result, GATWU leaders report that in both cases mentioned above, following interventions by the WRC and the CCC, managers established informal relationships with GATWU. While managers still did not officially recognise GATWU as a collective bargaining partner, they engaged in dialogue with GATWU organisers to solve everyday problems and grievances at the factory level.

On the other hand, GATWU’s capacities and practices of involving international campaigning organisations into spaces of contestation constructed around individual labour rights violations, however, contributed little to building GATWU’s associational and organisational power resources and thereby to shifting capital-labour power relations to the benefit of workers. Limitations for building lasting bargaining power through transnational campaigning resulted from four conditions. First, by relying on interventions and campaigns carried out by international consumer organisations as central leverage, the centre of gravity within spaces of contestation was moved from the factory space to the international network space. Many central practices constituting the space of contestation, such as consumer organisations’ practices of writing emails to brands or conducting public campaigns targeting brands in consumer countries, were performed in geographically distant places and rather disconnected from workers’ everyday agency spaces.

Second, interactions with international consumer campaigning organisations and local factory managements were limited to GATWU full-time organisers and did not include workers. The workers who had been the victims of the labour rights violations usually did not participate in any interactions with consumer organisations or in negotiations with the management. Therefore, only GATWU full-time organisers developed strategic capacities of planning, communicating and negotiating within interactions with managements and international consumer organisations.

Third, due to GATWU’s predominant community organising approach, GATWU’s full-time organisers did not systematically use victories achieved with the support of international consumer organisations to start organising campaigns in selected factories. This lack of strategic engagement by GATWU organisers to use victories as a tool for workplace organising can be explained through two main reasons. On the one hand, struggles involving consumer campaigns were centred on achieving compensation for labour rights violations concerning individual workers. As a result, in these cases, any compensations or corrections benefitted only individual workers and therefore did not serve as a base for large-scale workplace organising campaigns. On the other hand, the time frame of transnational consumer campaigns limited organisers’ abilities to construct larger workplace organising campaigns around the victories achieved through these campaigns. Usually, GATWU’s struggles involving transnational consumer campaigns took at least one or two years of sustained campaigning until a settlement with the management could be reached. Since most of the campaigning practices, however, took place in network spaces that were rather disconnected from workers’ everyday spaces, attention for a specific case at the local and international levels was often quite disconnected from each other. Whereas incidents such as the child’s death in the factory crèche caused outrage and spontaneous protests among workers in the respective factory right after the event happened (see also Text box 7.1), it took several months for the consumer campaign to take off due to lengthy administrative processes. Before consumer organisations such as the CCC or the WRC take action, a fact-finding mission has to take place, and an official report needs to be prepared. This process usually already takes several months or weeks. Consequently, by the time the international consumer campaign takes off, the incident is no longer present in workers’ minds.

Last, limits for translating moral and coalitional power resources from involving consumer organisations into sustained associational and organisational power also resulted from the power asymmetries characterising GATWU’s relations with international consumer organisations. These power asymmetries resulted from the fact that once international consumer organisations were drawn into spaces of contestation constructed by GATWU, they usually took on the lead regarding strategic planning and decision-making. In the case of the deceased baby at the factory crèche, GATWU had already settled with management for a compensation to be paid to the mother of the deceased child. The WRC, however, decided to conduct an international consumer campaign to push for a much larger compensation (for more details, see Text box 7.1).

International organisations taking the lead on these kinds of strategic decisions can have negative effects on local unions, since the institutional logic of international campaigning organisations and local unions are inherently different and not necessarily compatible. International campaigning organisations are interested in generating as much public attention as possible for a specific issue since public attention is the criterion against which their power is assessed by their stakeholders. For a union, however, the main criterion against which their power is assessed, is the size and strength of their membership. Hence, when drawing international consumer organisations into a struggle, interventions by these organisations followed an institutional logic of achieving maximum public attention for a case, independent of whether this public attention would benefit GATWU’s union-building struggle.

In summary, GATWU’s practices of constructing spaces of contestation around individual labour rights violations by intertwining practices of contacting the management, filing legal complaints and—in severe cases—involving international consumer organisations enabled GATWU to stop various particularly harsh practices of exploitation and disciplining performed by Bangalore export-garment manufacturers. However, at the same time, this strategy had three critical limitations regarding the scope of issues that could be addressed and regarding its potential for enhancing GATWU’s bargaining power vis-à-vis management. First, the fire-fighting approach was merely reactive because it only targeted labour rights violations after they happened and sought to correct them. Second, the transformations that could be achieved through the fire-fighting approach were limited to ensuring that legally prescribed minimum labour standards were met. Third and last, the victories achieved through this fire-fighting strategy only helped GATWU build associational and organisational power to a very limited extent, since they neither contributed to increasing GATWU’s membership nor to developing workers’ strategic capacities.

In contrast, a second set of practices through which GATWU constructed spaces of contestation in its early years was more successful in building GATWU’s membership base and associational power. This set of practices focussed on contesting for higher minimum wages and achieving regular revisions of the minimum wage for the garment industry in the State of Karnataka. In the next section, I will describe this set of practices in more detail.

Text box 7.1 Case in focus—Struggle for compensation for a worker’s deceased child at Gokaldas Exports

In 2015, a two-year-old child passed away in the crèche of a factory owned by the Bangalore export-garment manufacturing company Gokaldas Exports. During feeding hour, the child allegedly got rice into his lungs and had trouble breathing. Against legal provisions, the factory did not have an ambulance, so the child was brought to the hospital in a manager’s car but declared dead on arrival (INT4). The mother informed GATWU, and their organisers asked the management for financial compensation for the worker’s loss given that the child might have survived if an ambulance and all required medical facilities had been in place at the factory. GATWU finally agreed with the management on a compensation of 150,000 Rupees (approx. 2,300 US$ or two years of a garment worker’s basic wage) to be paid to the mother of the deceased child. Simultaneously, GATWU notified the Indian representative of the WRC about the incident. GATWU has thought of this notice merely as an information to involve the WRC in case the management refused to engage in negotiations. The WRC, however, found the compensation too low and not in line with international standards. Thus, the WRC proposed to GATWU to renegotiate the case—this time with a public campaign targeting Gokaldas Exports’ main buyers, asking them to ensure legal health and safety provisions in their supplier factories and adequate compensation for the mother of the deceased child. According to the WRC, the compensation should amount to 40,000 US$ equalling to an expected income of 25 years, with which her son could have supported her. This calculation was based on standards that had been defined by the ILO in the compensation process for the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2014 (WRC 2015b). After a year of sustained campaigning, brands finally arranged a tripartite negotiation involving brand representatives, the Gokaldas Exports management and GATWU. In this negotiation, GAWTU and Gokaldas Exports management agreed on an additional compensation payment of 800,000 Rupees (approx. 10,500 US$ or the equivalent of about ten years’ basic wages of a garment worker) for the mother of the deceased child (WRC 2015a). Moreover, Gokaldas Exports ensured that all legally required medical and health facilities were put in place. The enforcement of such a high compensation payment can be considered a historical victory for GATWU in the Indian context, exceeding any compensation payments for injured or deceased workers fixed by Indian courts so far (INT17). However, for three reasons this historic victory did not lead to a significant increase in membership or bargaining power for GATWU vis-à-vis the Gokaldas Exports management. First, GATWU’s victory did not imply any benefits for the factory workers except for the fact that medical facilities were put in place. Workers, however, seldom use these facilities because high production targets do not allow them to take breaks. Second, the WRC campaign relied on activating moral power resources by framing the health and safety violations in the Gokaldas factory as de facto human rights violations. This framing could, however, not easily be replicated in other struggles around less tragic incidents such as dismissals or factory closures. Third, most strategic interactions and practices that were decisive for leveraging moral power were carried out by WRC staff: WRC calculated the compensation payment, developed the strategy for a public campaign targeting brands, undertook a ‘fact finding’ investigation, published a report, and communicated with brands throughout the whole process. Therefore, practices of campaigning and negotiation took place primarily in transnational ‘network spaces’ and were only brought back to the local level in the end for the final tripartite negotiation between GATWU leaders, brands and the Gokaldas Export company management. As a result, GATWU leaders and workers had little involvement in the space of contestation and only limited chances to develop strategic capacities.

1.1.3.2 Campaigning for Minimum Wage Increases

As illustrated in Sect. 6.3, minimum wages in the garment industry in Karnataka have been traditionally low due to various employer practices of evading legally prescribed periodic minimum wage revisions. When GATWU was formally registered in 2006, the last minimum wage revision had taken place in 2001, and there had been no announcement by the state government about the date for the next round of minimum wage revisions. The average statutory minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangalore at that time was around 3000 Rupees per month (approx. 40 US$)—an amount that was not enough to cover the living expenses of a family. Consequently, low wages and resulting economic struggles were frequent topics of discussion in area committees and factory gate meetings. Against this background, GATWU’s first major collective struggle was centred on achieving a revision and significant increase of the statutory minimum wage.

During this period, GATWU did not have a strong membership base inside individual factories. Therefore, the unions’ capacities to push for collective bargaining at the factory level were limited. In the face of this constraint, public campaigning for a higher statutory minimum wage was a more viable strategy for achieving a wage increase. From 2007 to 2010, GATWU carried out a public campaign that combined two sets of interwoven practices: (1) organising and mobilising workers at the community level and (2) pressuring the labour department at the state level. At the community level, GATWU’s and Munnade’s primary organising practice involved building awareness among workers about wages as a collective, structural issue by discussing workers’ daily expenses in area committee meetings. As a Munnade organiser explains, these group discussions served to de-individualise problems of struggling economically. Through sharing individual experiences of not being able to afford rent, food and children’s education due to low wages, difficulties to make ends meet “became a collective experience” (INT39). Discussions in area committees were combined with a systematic expense survey among garment workers to calculate demands for a new minimum wage based on workers’ real expenses. The survey showed that workers needed at least 200 Rupees per day to cover their monthly expenses—double the minimum wage at that time.

Based on this figure, in 2007, GATWU organised a public campaign targeting the State Government of Karnataka. In this campaign, GATWU demanded the legally due minimum wage revision to take place and for an increase of minimum wages to 200 Rupees per day, amounting to a wage raise of 100%. To spread awareness among workers, GATWU and Munnade activists distributed posters and stickers in workers’ living areas stating “I am a garment worker and I need at least 200 Rupees per day to survive” in Kannada. As a Munnade activist explains, these stickers contributed significantly to building workers’ collective consciousness since “at some point, almost every garment worker had this sticker at their front door” (INT39). Parallel to organising and mobilising workers in their communities, GATWU sent a memorandum to the labour department sketching the survey results and demanding a minimum wage of 200 Rupees per day (INT39). To put pressure on the state government, GATWU conducted several public rallies throughout 2007 and 2008, addressing the labour department and employers. GATWU’s practices of conducting public rallies were, in turn, enabled by GATWU’s organising practices at the community level, which allowed GATWU to gather and mobilise several thousand workers from different neighbourhoods for central public rallies.

It was hence the intertwining of practices of community organising around wages as a collective issue with practices of organising and conducting public rallies that allowed GATWU to exercise associational power in the streets and thereby influence the Karnataka state government. After two years of sustained campaigning, the labour department finally issued a new minimum wage notification that increased wages by 27 Rupees per day. Garment manufacturers, however, refused to pay this new minimum wage and continued to pay the old minimum wage for a whole year (see also Sect. 6.3). Simultaneously manufacturers started a lobbying campaign, asking the state government to withdraw the new minimum wage notification, arguing that it would ruin the industry. In reaction to manufacturers lobbying campaign, in March 2010, the Government of Karnataka formally withdrew the original minimum wage notification due to a ‘clerical error’, and issued a new notification which increased the minimum wage by only 22 Rupees per day (as opposed to 27 Rupees in the original notification). Nevertheless, garment manufacturers continued to ignore this new, reduced minimum wage notification.

GATWU reacted to the withdrawal of the original minimum wage notification and manufacturers’ continued refusal to pay the new minimum wage rate by combining protest practices at the international, state and community levels and—for the first time—also at workplace level. At the international level, GATWU decided to activate support from international consumer organisations for additional leverage. Since brands’ codes of conduct usually state that legal minimum wages must be paid, consumer organisations were able to put significant pressure on brands sourcing from Bangalore factories through public campaigns. Following a particularly powerful campaign by the WRC, various large US brands finally threatened to suspend sourcing from Bangalore suppliers until manufacturers would pay the statutory minimum wage. At the state level, GATWU filed a case in the Karnataka High Court against the withdrawal of the notification. At the community and workplace level, garment workers conducted a symbolic protest by only wearing black clothes for eight days. Whereas this symbolic protest did not mobilise workplace bargaining power by stopping or slowing down production, it nevertheless attracted significant attention in the local and national media and enabled GATWU to leverage moral power resources vis-à-vis employers. Parallel, GATWU held regular factory gate and area meetings to inform workers about the newly fixed minimum wages. Even though GATWU did not achieve the reinstatement of the original minimum wage notification, GATWU’s protest practices at the community and factory level and the resulting public attention, however, ensured that employers paid the wage increment of 22 Rupees per day (INT39).

In the end, the wage increase achieved through GATWU’s minimum wage campaign of 2007–2010 remained at 20%, significantly under the union’s original demand of a 100% wage increase. Nevertheless, the campaign still had significant enabling effects for building GATWU’s bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and the state in subsequent minimum wage revisions. Following GATWU’s legal complaint about the withdrawal of the original minimum wage notification, the Karnataka High Court ruled in 2013 that for the next round of minimum wage revisions in 2014 a tripartite Minimum Wage Board for the garment sector should be constituted with GATWU as worker representative (INT39). As a result, since 2014, GATWU has been a member of the tripartite Minimum Wage Board for the garment sector and of the general Minimum Advisory Board for the State of Karnataka. Membership in these boards represents a source of institutional power: as a member of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board, GATWU has ensured that, since 2014, minimum wage revisions have been implemented in the legally prescribed intervals of three to five years. Moreover, as an official member of the Minimum Wage Board for the garment industry, GATWU was finally able to push for a minimum wage increase of about 100% and to raise monthly minimum wages to an average of 7,000 Rupees (approx. 100 US$) in the next round of minimum wage revision, which took place in 2014.

In summary, GATWU’s initial minimum wage struggle in 2009/10 has brought about positive wage effects for workers in the mid- and long-term and contributed to enhancing GATWU’s associational and institutional power resources. In terms of institutional power, GATWU established itself as the official representative of garment workers in the institutionalised minimum wage bargaining process. In terms of associational power, GATWU doubled its membership through the minimum wage campaign. Whereas in 2007, GATWU had around 3,000 members, by 2014, GATWU had managed to increase its membership to 6,500 members. This increase in membership was achieved through sustained community organising work and active involvement of workers in public rallies and collective, symbolic workplace action. Rallies and workplace action served for workers to experience collective organisation first-hand and to provide spaces for workers to develop an ‘oppositional consciousness’ (Katz 2004: 251), i.e. the capacity to understand and analyse one’s individual situation as shaped by broader power structures. Interactions with international consumer organisations, in turn, helped to build GATWU’s organisational power by allowing GATWU’s leadership to develop strategising capacities. These capacities included understanding the structure of the value chain, communicating with international consumer organisations, and strategically employing brands’ leverage to reinforce the exercise of associational and moral power through public campaigns and protests at the local level.

It is important to note that GATWU’s minimum wage campaign of 2007 till 2010 was nevertheless still in line with their overall fire-fighting approach. The primary rationale for the campaign was to rectify prevalent violations of the Minimum Wage Act by ensuring that the legally due regular minimum wage revisions were implemented and that employers paid the statutory minimum wage. By leveraging associational power through public protests and moral power through transnational consumer campaigns, GATWU stopped large-scale minimum wage violations and ensured regular minimum wage revisions. However, GATWU’s bargaining power was still insufficient to push for a living wage in tripartite negotiations with employers and the state. Limitations to GATWU’s bargaining power resulted from GATWU’s still relatively low membership of 6,000 workers in 2014 compared to a total of about 450,000 garment workers in the cluster. Moreover, given that with the community organising approach, GATWU’s members were distributed over a large number of factories, GATWU was unable to put pressure on employers through industrial action at the workplace.

In the face of these limitations, GATWU leaders and organisers have, over the past decade, shifted their organising activities from the community to the workplace. In the same line, they started to construct spaces of contestation around struggles for collective bargaining rather than around individual labour rights violations. The following section lays out GATWU’s strategic reorientation process in more detail. It describes how GATWU has constructed spaces of organising, collaboration and contestation in the context of its strategic turn towards a new factory organising, collective bargaining approach.

1.2 Towards a Strategic Factory Organising and Collective Bargaining Approach

GATWU’s strategic reorientation process was initiated by GATWU’s split from Cividep in 2010, which also ended funding for their activities from Oxfam International. After the split from Cividep, GATWU aimed to restructure internal union relations to build accountability relations primarily between workers and union leaders—as opposed to external accountability relations with international funders. In this line, GATWU also aimed to strengthen the role of worker activists in workplace organising and building collective bargaining processes with employers. It is important to note that GATWU’s strategic reorientation process went on for several years and is still not concluded.

GATWU’s first attempt to form a factory union and initiate collective bargaining at a factory called Arvind Ltd. in 2013 failed: After notifying the management about the newly founded factory union, the management immediately fired all factory union representatives. Despite filing legal complaints and urgent appeals with various international labour rights networks, GATWU could not reinstate the fired worker leaders, and the organisation at the factory was crushed. According to GATWU leaders, this first failed attempt to initiate a collective bargaining process at the factory level represented a decisive moment in GATWU’s strategic reorientation process for two reasons. First, they learned that to engage in factory-level collective bargaining, the union needed to achieve a significant level of organisation of about 60% in the respective factory to push for the reinstatement of dismissed workers leaders through industrial action. In the case of the collective bargaining attempt at Arvind Ltd., GATWU had only around 30 members in the factory, and these workers had not been sufficiently prepared to stay organised in case of repression by the management. Second, GATWU realised that neither filing legal complaints with the Labour Department nor filing urgent appeals with international consumer organisations represented effective tools to counter employer union-busting due to the lengthy processes of conducting fact-finding missions required for both measures.

The experience with the failed collective bargaining attempt at Arvind Ltd. led GATWU organisers to restructure how they constructed spaces of organising, spaces of collaboration and spaces of contestation in a more systematic way. Whereas they had formerly constructed the community as the main space for organising, GATWU now sought to build spaces of organising in selected target factories. Moreover, GATWU began to construct new spaces of collaboration by building relations with international worker and union networks that could help them develop their strategic capacities. Lastly, while GATWU had constructed spaces of contestation to rectify labour rights violations under the fire-fighting approach, GATWU now aimed to construct spaces of contestation around proactive struggles for collective bargaining. In the following, I lay out the practices and relations through which GATWU has been constructing spaces of organising, collaboration and contestation since 2015, when they first implemented the new factory organising, collective bargaining approach systematically.

1.2.1 Spaces of Organising

After the failed collective bargaining attempt at Arvind Ltd., GATWU reoriented its organising practices from community organising to factory organising. This strategic reorientation also involved a shift in focus from quantity of member relations—that is, from signing up as many members as possible—towards quality of member relations, as explained by GATWU’s president:

[…] from 2006 we were in many factories. […] We would go to anybody, take their membership, and we were also not so worried about consolidating our membership. Only members had to give their names, and that was it. So, then we saw that after six years, there was little outcome. [..] workers would come to the union whenever they had a problem. And they would not take the membership or continue with the membership. Only when they wanted something they would come to us. So, there was no real union perspective. Now we are working on that. We have trainings with workers on their role and responsibilities as union members. (INT26)

As the quote exemplifies, with the strategic reorientation, GATWU’s focus has shifted from merely increasing membership numbers to building stable and active membership bases in selected factories. Moreover, GATWU now invests a lot of time and resources into forming strong worker leaders inside factories who can organise and mobilise workers and negotiate issues with the management. Hence, with the reorientation towards a factory organising approach, central strategic functions and competencies have been shifted from full-time, paid organisers external to the factory space to worker leaders in the workplace (INT46). In this vein, internal union responsibilities and decision-making competencies have also been de-centralised: Worker leaders in factories now act largely independently when solving day-to-day grievances at the factory level. Union leaders, in turn, maintain relationships with external collaborators at the local and international levels. They also intervene with management in strategic struggles requiring additional leverage by involving senior union leaders.

In order to build the strong membership base and worker leader capacities needed to push for collective bargaining at the factory level, GATWU has developed a strategic approach for organising in selected target factories since 2017. Under this new factory organising approach, GATWU has been focussing its organising activities on five target factories, which were selected according to three main criteria. First, GATWU selected factories where they already had a significant number of members or where there had already been incidents of collective worker action. Second, factories were selected where GATWU had some members with strong leadership capacities and motivation to organise inside the factory. Third and last, GATWU selected key tier one suppliers for EU and US brands in line with their new strategy of forging collaborations with worker and union networks from brands’ retail sectors. These collaborations enabled GATWU to mobilise quick solidarity action when union activists at target factories were dismissed or victimised, as will be described in more detail in the next section.

In the five selected factories, GATWU has formed union committees and provides continuous training to the members of these committees. As opposed to training sessions with area committees under the community organising approach, training sessions with factory union committee members now go beyond just informing workers about their rights. Instead, these sessions focus on building workers’ strategic leadership skills by capacitating them to use labour laws as strategic tools and building awareness about their role and responsibilities as union representatives. Moreover, factory union committee members learn how to develop demands for collective bargaining (FN6).

The strategic shift from community organising towards factory organising has also gone along with the geographical restructuring and expansion of GATWU’s organising practices. Of the five target factories selected in 2017, three are located in semi-rural or rural zones in a distance of between 50 and 130 kms from Bangalore. Only two target factories are located on the outskirts of the Bangalore urban area along Mysore Road. In this area, GATWU has traditionally had the highest concentration of members. The expansion of GATWU’s geographical reach to include factories in rural areas needs to be understood against the backdrop of the general geographical restructuring of the sector over the past seven to eight years (see Sect. 5.2). The high worker turnover and presence of alternative job opportunities make it more difficult to organise workers in the city since workers just tend to look for another job when confronting problems in the workplace (see also Sect. 6.7). These challenges for organising are exemplified in the following report by GATWU’s president during an international union meeting:

There are so many garment factories now in the city area, and there is a high turnover rate of workers at the factories. When we organise at a factory, in the second year most of the workers with whom we started working won’t be there anymore. If workers in the city are facing problems within their factory, instead of struggling, they rather leave the factory and search for a job somewhere else. It is easy to find work in another factory, or even in a shop or a mall. In the rural areas it is different. There are less companies and therefore it is not that easy to change jobs, so workers are more willing to struggle back. (FN1)

In rural areas, workers, in turn, tend to regard work in garment factories as a favourable alternative to working in agriculture. Hence, workers are more prepared to organise and struggle for better conditions, as this Munnade organiser explains:

[…] between agricultural work and work in the garment factory, the garment factory is already an improvement. In agriculture, workers are outside in the sun the whole day. And in the garment factory there is shade, there are fans. Also, working at the factory, workers will get regular wages and ESI [Employee State Insurance] and EPF [Employees’ Provident Fund]. And then the whole family can be insured on the workers’ ESI. Agriculture depends so much on the weather. If the weather is bad, there is no income. And in the factory, you also get the Sunday off. In agriculture, there is no such thing as a day off. (INT39, translated from Kannada)

Against this background, GATWU has built its strongest membership bases under the new factory organising approach in target factories in rural areas. In addition to providing a more stable workforce, factories in rural areas also provided enabling conditions for organising because workers in these factories often had previous experiences of collective action, e.g. through conducting spontaneous protests. In one of GATWU’s rural target factories called European Clothing II, for example, workers had organised a sit-in protest that lasted several weeks after the management had terminated 43 helpers. This protest provided an entry point for GATWU, who took up the issue, filed an official complaint with the labour department and negotiated the workers’ reinstatement with the management.

This initial success allowed GATWU to quickly expand their factory membership base and thereby to build workplace bargaining power. This new workplace bargaining power, in turn, enabled GATWU to establish the leaders of the union factory committee as dialogue partners of the management. Now worker leaders from this factory independently negotiate with management on everyday problems and grievances in the factory. However, it is important to note that building a strong membership base at the factory level and engaging in collective action alone was not enough to achieve official union recognition. So far, GATWU has won official recognition by the management and signed a collective bargaining agreement only in one factory belonging to the company Avery Dennison. To achieve the collective bargaining agreement, GATWU had to combine practices at various levels, including leveraging coalitional power resources from new collaborations with international union networks. Before I lay out in more detail how GATWU constructed the space of contestation around the collective bargaining campaign at Avery Dennison, in the next section, I will first lay out which new collaborations enabled GATWU to conduct this campaign.

1.2.2 Spaces of Collaboration

As mentioned above, GATWU’s shift towards a factory organising, collective bargaining approach also involved reorganising the practices through which GATWU constructed relationships with external collaborators. After ending the collaboration with Cividep, GATWU decided to construct collaborative relationships with external organisations differently: As part of the strategic reorientation process, they now sought to construct relationships with external organisations not primarily as a space for acquiring financial resources but as a space for developing strategic capacities for union building and collective bargaining. According to GATWU’s leaders, two international union networks played a crucial role in helping them to construct these types of spaces: the International Union League for Brand Responsibility and the TIE ExChains network. The International Union League for Brand Responsibility (short: the League) is a network of 13 unions from export industries in Asia and Latin America, many of which are active in the export-garment industry. Founded in 2013, the League aims to build transnational solidarity among workers to collectively pressure brands into ensuring workers’ rights to Freedom of Association at their supplier factories (IULBR 2021).

The TIE ExChains network, in turn, brings together workers from the fashion retail and logistics sector in Europe and workers from the South Asian garment industry. The TIE ExChains network aims to strengthen local union building and bargaining power through transnational solidarity and to develop joint demands of workers along the value chain vis-à-vis lead firms (ExChains 2015). GATWU leaders report that participating in these two networks has helped them to deploy coalitional power resources in form of transnational labour solidarity in ways that also strengthened GATWU’s associational and organisational power. One GATWU leader stresses that it was vital for GATWU to prioritise collaborations with international union and worker networks. As opposed to NGOs or consumer networks which have different institutional logics (see Sect. 7.1.1), worker and union networks can relate to GATWU’s struggles from first-hand experience. A GATWU leader expresses this in the following words: “They are giving us the strategic and ethical strength. Because they also believe what we believe” (INT46).

As opposed to former project-based collaborations with international NGOs, collaborations within these transnational union networks focussed on sharing experiences from workplace struggles. GATWU leaders argue that learning from Central American garment unions’ experiences with pushing for collective bargaining and withstanding employer repression was crucial for their process of developing a factory organising strategy (INT46). In particular, learning how to use transnational solidarity to strengthen local union bargaining power was a crucial takeaway for GATWU from discussions with other unions in the League and the TIE ExChains network. GATWU leaders have also built territorially embedded networks with other Indian unions, inter alia through their affiliation to the New Trade Union Initiative. However, these unions usually have no experience with using transnational mechanisms. While from these territorially embedded union networks, GATWU can hence get advice, for example, on how to use Indian legal mechanisms most effectively, these networks are not spaces where GATWU can develop capacities of networked agency. Therefore, network spaces of collaboration in transnational union networks represent a critical complementary space for GATWU, in which union leaders can develop strategic capacities, which they cannot develop through interactions within territorially embedded union networks at the national level.

Planning joint networked action with the members of the TIE ExChains network played a crucial role in developing GATWU’s strategic factory organising approach. As mentioned earlier, one important criterion for GATWU’s selection of target factories was that these factories should produce for international brands where retail and logistics workers from the TIE ExChains network have strong representation. Linking factory organising practices with practices of constructing transnational labour solidarity relationships enabled GATWU to proactively plan and coordinate parallel interventions at the factory level as well as at the international level to support struggles for collective bargaining in target factories. To this end, GATWU regularly informs the European coordinators of the TIE ExChains network about the state of organising at target factories and plans for initiating the collective bargaining process. As a result, solidarity actions directed at mobilising brands’ leverage can be activated immediately in case of employer repression.

Contrary to consumer campaigns, which usually rely on leveraging moral power resources, solidarity actions within the TIE ExChains network use workers’ associational and institutional power to exercise leverage over brands and retailers. Works councils in Germany, for example, use weekly meetings with store managers to address GATWU’s struggles for collective bargaining and ask management to ensure the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining along their supply chains. Whereas these practices do not necessarily lead brands to push suppliers to enter into negotiations with GATWU, brands usually contact their suppliers to inquire about the situation. This inquiry, in turn, raises awareness with the local manufacturer that there is attention from brands on the case and can thereby prevent repression in reaction to GATWU’s demand for collective bargaining.

Besides constructing collaborations with international union networks as spaces for strategic capacity development and leveraging coalitional power in struggles for collective bargaining, GATWU has constructed several collaborations with local organisations as spaces for securing financial resources. Even though membership fees are collected more strictly under the new factory organising model, membership fees are still not enough to cover costs for the union’s office and activities. Therefore, to acquire additional financial resources, GATWU has built a network of local organisations and individuals who support the union’s work through financial and material donations.

Lastly, GATWU has transformed their practices of constructing relationships with international consumer networks from the Global North under the new factory organising, collective bargaining approach. However, as opposed to GATWU’s early years, under the new factory organising, collective bargaining approach GATWU has filed urgent appeal mechanisms with international consumer networks only very selectively. In an interview, the leaders stress that GATWU no longer uses urgent appeal mechanisms for individual workers’ cases due to the high time and personnel resources involved in filing such an appeal compared to low benefits for the union building and organising process:

GATWU leader 1::

You know it is a small case, but then you have to do so many things… The energy and time…And international campaigns, they want 100% details. (INT46)

GATWU leader 2::

And after that, any positive thing that comes about is only for one worker. For only one worker, we cannot do the whole thing. […] It will take a lot of our time, effort, resources, everything. But only for one worker, not for every worker. And after that, the worker will leave the job and then everything was in vain, (INT46)

Therefore, currently, GATWU exclusively resorts to leveraging moral power through international campaigns to address collective issues linked to the union-building process in a specific factory. This is the case for example, when key worker leaders have been dismissed or when a collective issue affects a large group of workers in a target factory. In the following subsection, I will lay out in more detail how GATWU deployed transnational campaigns as one of several tactics in their struggle at an Avery Dennison factory in Bangalore. It was in this struggle that GATWU achieved the first collective bargaining agreement in the Bangalore export-garment industry.

1.2.3 Spaces of Contestation

As mentioned earlier, under the new factory organising approach, GATWU currently constructs spaces of contestation primarily around collective issues at target factories or even at non-target factories when these issues have the potential to serve as catalysts for building a strong membership at that factory. Only in these cases, GATWU deploys strategies of networked agency that intertwine actions at the factory, state and international levels to target multiple actors simultaneously. The remainder of this section analyses GATWU’s networked agency strategy for constructing spaces of contestation under the factory organising, collective bargaining approach through the lens of a labour struggle led by GATWU from 2017 till 2020 at the Bangalore factory of the multinational company Avery Dennison. This struggle represents an important milestone in GATWU’s new factory organising, collective-bargaining strategy since it was the first struggle in which GATWU signed a collective bargaining agreement at the factory level. In the following, I first set out the background of the struggle and a chronology of events before describing in more detail the networked practices of contestation at various levels deployed by GATWU in this particular struggle.

1.2.3.1 GATWU’s Struggle at Avery Dennison from 2017 Till 2019: Background and Chronology of Events

Avery Dennison is a multinational company producing labels, graphic tags and price tags for apparel brands and retailers. In Avery Dennison’s Bangalore factory, about 600 workers produce RFID labels and tags for more than 130 international garment brands and retailers. Avery Dennison does not supply brands and retailers directly but acts as a tier two supplier. However, given its quasi-monopoly market position as a producer of RFID labels, Avery Dennison can still be considered a strategic supplier in the garment GPN. Notably, the workforce composition and labour process at Avery Dennison as a label factory differ from the typical workforce composition and labour process organisation in Bangalore garment factories. At Avery Dennison, the workforce is predominantly male and (semi-)skilled, since many tasks involve operating digital design and printing machines. Moreover, compared to wages in the garment manufacturing sector, wages at Avery Dennison were significantly higher than the minimum wage, with blue-collar workers in permanent employment earning an average monthly wage of 25,000 Rupees. Against this backdrop, the company had traditionally relied to a large part on contract labourers, who received much lower wages. Despite the provisions of the Indian Contract Labour Act, which foresees that contract labour can only be used in non-core activities and for a maximum of 240 days per year, Avery Dennison had operated its Bangalore factory in Bangalore with about 70% contract workers up until GATWU intervened in 2017.

By the time GATWU started organising at Avery Dennison, most contract workers had worked at the factory for between two and ten years without a break in service. While most contract workers had initially been hired as unskilled helpers, many had been promoted to skilled positions of digital machine operators and team leaders over the years. At the same time, these contract workers continued to receive the wage rates for helpers, ranging around 7,000 Rupees (approx. 92 US$). As such, wages paid to contract workers at Avery Dennison were significantly below the scheduled minimum wage for the printing industry. Arguing that employment at Avery Dennison does not fall under any of the scheduled employments for which the Government of Karnataka fixes a statutory minimum wage, the Avery Dennison management paid only the minimum wage for so-called ‘non-scheduled’ employment to contract workers. Hence, while carrying out the same tasks as permanently employed workers, contract workers received significantly lower wages, bonus payments and benefits. Differences in wages and benefits were also particularly salient between contract workers and permanent workers because permanent workers had been organised for years in a factory-level union, the Avery Dennison Workers Union (ADWU). Despite the unfavourable conditions of the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the ADWU compared to industry standards, permanent workers still received total monthly wages of about 25,000 Rupees (approx. 331 US§). Permanent workers’ wages were more than three times higher than contract workers’ wages. However, the basic wage component defined in the collective bargaining agreement for permanent workers was very low, and more than 50% of the total wage consisted of bonus payments. Therefore, social contributions were calculated by the company according to the basic wage of around 10,500 Rupees (approx. 139 US$), meaning significant pension losses for workers.

GATWU’s engagement at Avery Dennison in Bangalore began in September 2017, when the factory management dismissed 47 contract workers within one month without further explanation. The collective dismissal instilled fear among contract workers about losing their job and led them to approach GATWU, who, by that time, had built a reputation in Bangalore for its successful networked agency approach in the export-garment industry. GATWU took up the case and, in the first few weeks, concentrated on building a strong membership inside the factory in line with the new strategic factory organising approach. Given contract workers’ readiness to unionise, GATWU had organised about 90% of the 300 contract workers who remained at the factory within a few weeks. In October 2017, GATWU handed the management an official charter of demands comprising the following demands: (1) recognition of GATWU as the official representative of contract workers, (2) reinstatement of the dismissed contract workers, (3) payment of adequate sectoral minimum wages for contract workers, (4) provision of equal benefits for permanent and contract workers, and (5) permanent employment for all contract workers who had been working at the factory for more than 240 days as ordered by the Indian Contract Workers Act.

The Avery Dennison management, however, refused to engage in negotiations with GATWU. Instead the management performed two union-busting practices to undermine GATWU’s union-building work in the factory. First, the management recurred to a strategy of ‘politics of silence’ and simply ignored GATWU’s requests for dialogue. Even when GATWU filed a complaint at the labour department, the Avery Dennison management did not participate in the tripartite conciliation meetings but instead sent a lawyer as a representative—according to GATWU leaders, a clear sign that the management had no interest in coming to an agreement with the union. Second, the management continued with contract worker lay-offs, targeting workers who had participated in union gate meetings.

The management’s refusal to recognise and engage with GATWU as a bargaining partner was followed by a year-long struggle by GATWU, which intertwined practices of contestation at the workplace, state and international levels. These practices included holding protests at the workplace, filing legal complaints and involving transnational union and consumer networks. Through these networked practices of contestation, GATWU was able to pressure employers into implementing several important improvements for contract workers.

First, GATWU achieved permanent employment for 110 contract workers (even though contract workers had to undergo a formal application process, meaning they lost the benefits gained through years of continuous service). Second, the management increased contract workers’ wages beyond the mandatory statutory minimum wage increase. When in January 2018, the Government of Karnataka increased minimum wages for non-scheduled employment from 7,000 Rupees (approx. 92 US$) to 12,000 Rupees (approx. 159 US$), the Avery Dennison management raised contract workers’ wages to 13,000 Rupees (approx. 172 US$). Lastly, GATWU achieved several transformations in Avery Dennison’s practices of employing contract workers. Until GATWU’s intervention, Avery Dennison maintained informal relationships with contract labour agencies. Orders for additional labour supply or terminating workers’ services had been made through phone calls rather than in written form, allowing Avery Dennison to deny any responsibility for contract workers. Following GATWU’s intervention, Avery Dennison stopped this practice and started giving orders in written form. Moreover, all contract workers carrying out core activities were offered permanent employment in the previously mentioned recruitment process. Contract workers were only employed in non-core activities to ensure compliance with the Indian Contract Labour Act.

GATWU’s victories in the contract worker struggle subsequently allowed them to extend its organising and collective bargaining efforts at Avery Dennison to include permanent workers as well. During factory gate meetings, GATWU leaders and activists started to address permanent workers organised in the ADWU to raise awareness about the unfavourable conditions of the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by ADWU. Given GATWU’s victory for contract workers, many permanent workers decided to join GATWU, hoping that they could also win additional benefits for permanent workers. By July 2018, GATWU had managed to organise about 70% of permanent workers. GATWU had managed to gain more members than the long-standing factory union ADWU. Following the provisions of Indian labour law, GATWU demanded a secret ballot election to formally establish itself as the majority union and hence as the official partner for collective bargaining. The management, however, ignored GATWU’s request to hold elections.

Instead, factory managers employed various union-busting practices to undermine GATWU’s unionisation efforts with permanent workers. For example, the Avery Dennison management repeatedly convened staff meetings, warning workers not to engage with GATWU, claiming that the union as an ‘outsider’ organisation would harm the factory. Against this background, GATWU once more deployed a networked agency strategy combining practices of contestation at the factory, state and international levels to put pressure on management. The pressure placed on brands and the Avery Dennison management through the combination of intertwined practices at all three levels finally culminated in a formal mediation process initiated by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The ETI is a business-led multi-stakeholder initiative, of which many brands sourcing from Avery Dennison are part. In this mediation process, GATWU and the Avery Dennison management finally agreed to form a joint bargaining committee involving members of GATWU and the ADWU. In the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by this joint committee in December 2019, GATWU achieved various improvements for permanent workers, including inter alia a significant raise in basic wages and annual, wedding and bereavement leave. Figure 7.2 gives an overview of the chronology of events of GATWU’s struggle at Avery Dennison.

Fig. 7.2
A timeline with halts in September 2017, October 2017, January 2018, July 2018, November 2018, May 2019, and December 2019. Information for each halt and between 2 halts is given.

Source Author

Timeline of events of GATWU’s struggle at Avery Dennison Bangalore.

1.2.3.2 Holding Gate Meetings and Conducting Symbolic Protests at the Workplace Level

Following the strategic factory organising, collective-bargaining approach, the core space of contestation in GATWU’s struggle at Avery Dennison was the workplace. At the workplace, GATWU combined several practices of contestation, from holding gate meetings to protesting inside the factory. Gate meetings were constructed as spaces for dialogue and trust building with workers, and consequently for building a strong membership base inside the factory. Accordingly, GATWU leaders and factory activists used gate meetings to distribute leaflets to contract and permanent workers in order to raise workers’ awareness of management’s wage theft practices affecting both contract and permanent workers. On the other hand, gate meetings were constructed as protest spaces to put pressure on the factory management (see Fig. 7.3). In this vein, workers and GATWU organisers used gate meetings to voice their demands and produce photos and videos that could then be shared with international networks of collaborators.

Fig. 7.3
A photo of people protesting on the road with banners in a foreign language. Text in English reads, Garment and Textile workers union.

Source ExChains 2019

Factory gate meeting in front of Avery Dennison factory with workers and GATWU organisers.

Protesting practices inside the factory, in turn, included various practices of symbolic protest, including collective canteen boycotts and hunger strikes (see Fig. 7.4), and workers wearing badges that stated: “I belong to GATWU”.

Fig. 7.4
A photograph of workers in uniform protesting by sitting on the canteen floor. They hold banners with texts that read, we are G A T W U, pay balance bonus, and other texts in a foreign language.

Source ExChains 2019

Worker canteen boycott at Avery Dennison.

These symbolic protest practices at the workplace level contributed to building GATWU’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the Avery Dennison management in two ways: First, collective protest practices strengthened GATWU’s associational and organisational power because they provided spaces for workers to experience collective action first-hand. Moreover, by actively involving workers in planning these actions, GATWU leaders created spaces for workers to build the strategic capacities needed to lead a labour struggle. Planning of workplace actions happened during regular Sunday meetings with workers, in which GATWU leaders updated workers on every step and new development in the struggle, answered workers’ questions, and, together with workers, developed plans for strategic next steps. According to GATWU’s president, this form of intensive worker involvement in the planning and decision-making process was a central condition for building associational power in the form of a strong membership base at Avery Dennison and for maintaining this membership base throughout the more than two years of the struggle.

However, GATWU made the conscious decision not to use these associational power resources to strike but instead to conduct only symbolic collective actions inside the factory through the hunger strike and the badge campaign. This decision was based on GATWU’s strategic evaluation of the balance of forces: they concluded that the management would most probably counter industrial action with mass lay-offs and potentially even factory closure. Given this risk, GATWU decided to perform symbolic collective action at the factory level. This symbolic action could then be transformed into moral power resources by distributing video and photo footage across their international supporter networks and social media channels. The leverage that GATWU’s symbolic protests within the factory space produced vis-à-vis management, therefore, resulted only from intertwining these protests at the workplace level with practices of activating links with international NGO and union networks.

1.2.3.3 Practices of Contestation at the State Level: Filing Complaints with the Labour Department

Parallel to building and leveraging associational power resources at the workplace, GATWU sought to leverage institutional power resources at the state level by filing repeated complaints with the Labour Department. In total, GATWU filed three complaints with the Labour Department: (1) a complaint about Avery Dennison’s illegal use of contract labour, (2) a complaint about non-payment of minimum wages for the printing industry for contract workers and (3) a complaint about the illegal termination of workers engaged in the union. GATWU’s practices of filing complaints with the Labour Department, however, also only allowed the union to leverage institutional power resources through interrelations with moral power resources activated through public campaigns with international collaborators.

As explained in Sect. 6.5, the overall pro-business stance of state authorities generally constrains unions’ institutional power resources. Therefore, filing a complaint at the labour department is usually not an effective means for unions to ensure the implementation of labour rights, particularly in cases of illegal terminations and union-busting. However, as GATWU leaders explain, filing an official complaint at the labour department can still represent a strategically important practice within a networked agency approach, because it increases the credibility of the union’s events report vis-à-vis international collaborators. In the Avery Dennison case, enhancing credibility vis-à-vis international union and consumer networks worked particularly well because the deputy labour commissioner in charge ordered an official inspection, which confirmed Avery Dennison’s illicit use of contract labour. Similar to the documentation of workers’ hunger strike, the official inspection report by the labour department served GATWU as a tool for leveraging moral power resources through transnational campaigns in collaboration with international union and consumer networks. These networks used the official inspection report as leverage to pressure brands into ensuring that these labour law violations by their supplier would be corrected.

1.2.3.4 Leveraging Coalitional Power Resources at the International Level

As has been demonstrated, GATWU’s practices of contestation at the workplace and at the state level only unfolded their leverage over Avery Dennison when combined with practices of involving international union and consumer networks. These networks used images of workplace protests and the inspection report to leverage moral power over brands through ‘naming and shaming’ campaigns addressing brands as primary targets. Even though GATWU had, under the new factory organising approach, decided to engage with consumer campaigning networks more selectively, in the struggle at Avery Dennison, GATWU took the strategic decision to involve both union and consumer networks from the onset. Given the quasi-monopoly of Avery Dennison in the garment production network as a supplier of RFID-tags and labels for all major garment retailers and brands, GATWU had decided to draw as many international organisations as possible into the space of contestation to maximise the scope of brands that could be targeted. In that sense, in the Avery Dennison case, GATWU still benefitted from relationships with the WRC and the CCC established during the earlier fire-fighting approach phase. In addition, GATWU was able to activate the connections with the TIE ExChains network, and the League established under the new strategic factory organising and collective-bargaining approach.

To coordinate their actions and to facilitate communication with GATWU, international union and consumer networks established a geographical division of labour with the League and the WRC coordinating actions targeting US brands and the CCC coordinating actions targeting European brands. Union and consumer networks built pressure on brands and on Avery Dennison directly for more than a year through various practices of contestation. The practices included sending letters to brands’ central managements, publishing fact finding reports, disseminating workers’ demands and calls for solidarity on various social media platforms and creating an online petition that reached more than 80,000 signatures.

In addition to public campaigns, works councils from the TIE ExChains network in Germany exerted in-house pressure on Primark and H&M through two practices. First, works councils created internal awareness among retail workers about the violations at Avery Dennison by talking to colleagues and disseminating information material in workers’ social areas. Second, German Primark and H&M works councils used the institutionalised spaces of regular meetings with store and general management to request the management to ensure that their supplier Avery Dennison respected the rights to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining. As mentioned earlier, when deploying these practices, union and consumer networks used documentation of workplace action produced by GATWU to leverage moral power resources vis-à-vis brands. Figure 7.5 illustrates how Primark works councils in Germany that are part of the broader TIE ExChains network, used photos from gate meetings to create posters. These posters were put up in the social rooms of various Primark stores to raise awareness among retail workers and store managers for GATWU’s struggle.

Fig. 7.5
A poster in foreign text. It includes 3 photos of people protesting. 2 photos have a woman and a man speaking through a microphone.

Source ExChains 2019

Poster created by Primark works councils in Germany to raise awareness for GATWU’s struggle at Avery Dennison.

As a result of the coordinated and sustained practices of awareness raising and campaigning by worker and consumer networks in the US and Europe, brands finally intervened in the conflict between GATWU and Avery Dennison by initiating a mediation process through the Ethical Trade Initiative. The mediation process brought to the table representatives of GATWU and its national representation, the New Trade Union Initiative, and the Avery Dennison India management. In this mediation process, GATWU finally achieved recognition as official bargaining partner by the management—even though as part of a joint bargaining committee with the already present ADWU. Nevertheless, GATWU’s recognition as official bargaining partner and the subsequent signing of the official collective bargaining agreement in December 2019 need to be regarded as a crucial victory. It is the first official bargaining agreement achieved by GATWU or by any local garment union in India.

It is important to note, however, that the historic win for GATWU with the signing of the collective bargaining agreement at Avery Dennison was made favourable by two central conditions for factory organising and collective bargaining that distinguish Avery Dennison from most factories in the Bangalore garment export industry: First, as mentioned above, the workforce composition at Avery Dennison differs significantly from the workforce composition in most tier one garment factories, where 85% of workers are female. Since the workforce at Avery Dennison was predominantly composed of men, it was much easier for GATWU leaders to hold factory gate meetings and regular Sunday meetings. As opposed to many women workers in garment factories, who have domestic responsibilities and often face opposition from their husbands or parents-in-law when they want to attend union meetings, male workers at Avery Dennison were free to join union meetings regularly. Second, as opposed to Bangalore tier one export-garment factories which are usually constructed as tightly controlled, union-free spaces by managers (see Sect. 6.4), at Avery Dennison, there was already a practice of collective bargaining at the workplace level. Hence, workers at Avery Dennison were already familiar with the concepts of unionisation and collective bargaining through first-hand experience at their workplace—an experience that most women workers in typical tier one export-garment factories lack. Both these conditions provided fertile ground for the union to organise, first the contract workers and subsequently permanent workers and allowed GATWU to build a significant membership base in a very short time.

In light of these special conditions, evaluating the significance of the struggle at Avery Dennison for GATWU’s broader strategic shift towards a factory organising, collective bargaining approach is important. To which extent did GATWU implement the new strategic priorities of the factory organising, collective bargaining approach in the Avery Dennison struggle? In the Avery Dennison struggle, GATWU achieved to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for the first time. However, Avery Dennison was not among the five target factories that GATWU had selected in 2017 under their new factory organising, collective bargaining approach. The Avery Dennison case, therefore, sheds light on the tension that GATWU faces under the new strategic factory organising approach between advancing the union-building process in the target factories and reacting to pressing matters and incidents in other factories. GATWU’s engagement in the Avery Dennison struggle can hence be considered a case of ‘hot shop’ organising in the sense that GATWU did not strategically select this factory but rather provided an institutional roof for the wildcat collective organisation among contract workers.

Nevertheless, it can be considered a critical success for GATWU that they achieved to turn this spontaneous collective organisation into a more stable, lasting form of organisation with the formation of GATWU factory unions for contract and permanent workers. However, the Avery Dennison case bound all of GATWU’s resources for almost two years. Due to the time-intensive communication and coordination processes with the Avery Dennison management, the labour department and international union and consumer networks in addition to regular meetings with workers, GATWU central leaders had little resources left to advance collective bargaining processes in the originally selected target factories. At the same time, workers leaders in the selected target factories did not yet have the strategic capacities to start collective bargaining processes alone at the respective target factories where GATWU had already achieved a significant level of organisation.

Given the strong anti-union attitude of management in the Bangalore export-garment cluster (see Sect. 6.5), pressuring managers into collective bargaining processes requires additional leverage through international union and consumer networks. Communication with these international collaborators usually takes place in English. However, most GATWU worker leaders do not speak English. Therefore, the capacity to plan and execute networked agency strategies with international supporter networks is still centralised with union leaders.

Hence, the Avery Dennison case reveals how the centralisation of core capacities to construct complex, networked spaces of contestation with GATWU’s leadership poses limits for implementing the factory organising, collective bargaining-strategy at a greater scale in the Bangalore export-garment industry. Only after the struggle at Avery Dennison was officially concluded in December 2019 with the signing of the joint collective bargaining agreement between ADWU/GATWU and the Avery Dennison management, the GATWU leadership could dedicate resources again to target factories. Further advancements with building collective bargaining processes in target factories were, however, blocked when with the COVID-19 pandemic, the next pressing issue arrived that required immediate action in terms of ensuring workers’ basic labour rights. Hence, particularly in the face of GATWU’s limited financial resources, tensions between a ‘fire-fighting’ strategy directed at addressing immediate labour rights violations and a more long-term oriented strategic organising approach continue to exist in GATWU’s day-to-day practice.

1.3 Discussion: Lessons from GATWU’s Case

What can we learn from GATWU’s case regarding which types of relations and interactions can enable local unions in garment producing countries to build sustained bargaining power, and thereby achieve lasting improvements for workers? I propose that there are three important lessons to take away from GATWU’s case.

First, regarding the relations that unions construct with workers in spaces of organising, GATWU’s case has highlighted the enabling potential but also the limits of community organising strategies that organise workers in their spaces of reproduction around workplace but also around community and household issues (cf. Jenkins 2013). Whereas such a community organising approach can enable unions to circumvent employer control in the workplace and thereby build associational power at the local level, it does not enable unions to build workplace bargaining power. Relations with workers organised through a community organising approach necessarily comprise workers from many different factories, with membership numbers in each factory remaining low. As a result, while workers can be mobilised for public protests at the city level—e.g. to target state actors and exercise political power (Hauf 2017)—low membership numbers in the workplace however do not allow unions to pressure employers into collective bargaining through industrial action. At the same time, GATWU’s case has shown that community organising strategies can help prepare the ground for more targeted factory organising, enabling unions to build workplace bargaining power and to engage in collective bargaining.

Regarding local unions’ interactions and relations with external actors in spaces of collaboration, GATWU’s case has, on the one hand, highlighted the potential enabling effects that external funding from Northern NGOs can have for independent, local unions. Especially in their early stages, independent unions still have a low membership and can, therefore, not fund organisers and offices through membership fees. On the other hand, GATWU’s case has also revealed the importance of treating external funding as a short- or, at most, mid-term solution rather than as a long-term arrangement. Union leaders found that the dependence on external funding hampered participatory and democratic internal union structures. Since all strategic activities were carried out exclusively by the unions’ full-time organisers, there was little room for building a strong second-rank worker leadership. The case of GATWU therefore corroborates and adds to the findings of past studies pointing out the mixed effects that transnational collaborations with Northern NGOs have on local union-building processes in garment producing countries (see e.g. Fink 2014; Hauf 2017; Zajak 2017).

Against this backdrop, When GATWU decided to cut off funded project ties with NGOs, this opened up new room for a strategic reorientation—not only in the practices through which GATWU constructed spaces of collaboration but also in GATWU’s organising practices. New collaborations with grassroots unions and worker networks at the vertical dimension of the garment GPN allowed GATWU to build the necessary strategic planning capacities for developing a networked agency approach. This approach combines strategic organising in selected target factories with the moral and institutional power of workers and civil society organisations in consumer countries to open up room for collective bargaining in target factories. GATWU’s case shows that the enabling resources that local unions in garment producing countries can access through transnational spaces of collaboration are not limited to unilateral North–South flows of financial resources and moral power, as highlighted by past research (see e.g. Fink 2014; Zajak et al. 2017). Instead, transnational spaces of collaboration can also encompass a mutual exchange of knowledge and experiences with other labour actors in the Global North and the Global South. Hence, this study sheds light on two types of transnational collaborations that have so far remained understudied in literature on labour’s networked agency strategies in GPNs: grassroots worker organising along value chains and South-South collaborations between local labour and civil society actors.

Lastly, with regard to relations and interactions with employers, state actors and transnational consumer campaigning networks in spaces of contestation, GATWU’s case has shown that active worker participation in spaces of contestation is a central enabling condition for building a unions’ lasting associational, organisational and workplace bargaining power. GATWU’s minimum wage campaign and struggle at Avery Dennison have illustrated how—in cases where unions do not have sufficient associational power to engage in industrial action—symbolic workplace protests can be an option for unions to foster workers’ active participation in spaces of contestation. The collective experiences that workers make by participating in symbolic protests in the workplace contribute to building workers’ collective mindset and sense of ownership of the union as a membership-based organisation—two vital enabling conditions for strengthening the unions’ associational and organisational power. As a result, labour struggles with active worker participation are more likely to contribute to enhancing a union’s bargaining power vis-à-vis employers than labour struggles in which workers do not play an active role. The case of GATWU hence provided further evidence for arguments from labour geographers, who have reiterated that transnational campaigning strategies and linked moral power resources can only reinforce but never substitute workers’ associational power on the ground (Kumar 2014, 2019a; Selwyn 2013).

In the next section, I turn to the second-biggest Bangalore garment union: the Garment Labour Union.

2 Garment Labour Union (GLU)

In this section, I analyse the strategic approach of GLU, the second-biggest garment union in Bangalore, with around 6000 members at the time the research was conducted. A group of former GATWU members founded GLU in 2012, one year after GATWU had split from Cividep. Whereas in GATWU’s executive committee at the time, there were several men, GLU was founded explicitly as a women-led union. To this day, GLU works closely with Cividep and the community organisation ‘Munnade’. ‘Munnade’ was founded together with GLU as a counterpart to the other community organisation, ‘Garment Mahila Karmikara Munnade’, which continued to work with GATWU.

GLU’s strategic approach shows strong continuities with the strategic community organising approach that characterised the first phase of GATWU before the split from Cividep. In recent years, GLU has also sought to increase their foothold inside factories by forming factory committees with a geographical focus on Peenya, an industrial area on the North-Western outskirts of Bangalore. In the following, I will lay out the practices and relationships through which GLU constructs spaces of organising, spaces of collaboration and spaces of contestation. In doing so, I will illustrate the various tensions arising from GLU’s attempts to build factory committees while simultaneously continuing with the area-based organising and ‘fire-fighting’ approach.

2.1 Spaces of Organising

As mentioned earlier, GLU’s organising practices show strong continuities to the community-based organising approach that informed GATWU’s strategy in its early years. At the same time, GLU has, also introduced some practices directed at factory organising and building factory committees over the past five years with the long-term strategic goal of engaging in collective bargaining with employers. In the following, I will first illustrate those practices and strategies that show continuities with the community-based organising approach and after that lay out the practices through which GLU seeks to introduce elements of a factory-centred organising approach.

Continuities in GLU’s organising practices with the community organising approach are present mainly in GLU’s close collaboration with the community organisation Munnade. Whereas in GATWU’s union and community organising work have become rather separate areas of work over time, in GLU, union and community organising continue to be closely intertwined. These close relations also result from personnel overlaps between GLU and Munnade organisers, who are employed by Cividep within the framework of projects sponsored by NGOs from the Global North. These NGOs fund a broad area of GLU’s and Munnade’s activities, including, for example, family and childcare counselling, psychological counselling for women facing domestic abuse and legal counselling and support for garment workers in case of workplace grievances. GLU’s organising work is geographically concentrated in the industrial area of Peenya, representing one of Bangalore’s major garment hubs. Here, GLU maintains an office and a worker and community centre where meetings and cultural events take place. In addition, GLU maintains an office on Mysore Road.

Through Munnade, GLU continues to provide social community services for garment workers, including counselling services, savings groups and cultural activities. These community services serve as a space for raising awareness among garment women workers about their rights as workers, citizens and women and to support workers in claiming these rights. As part of their community work, GLU organisers also support garment workers with applying for school stipends provided by the State of Karnataka to children of garment workers. Community work hence continues to be an essential part of GLU’s work not merely as a ‘pre-union’ organising tool but also as a form of addressing women garment workers’ needs and problems beyond the workplace. At the same time, GLU organisers stress that community work through Munnade remains a critical practice to gain workers’ trust and to familiarise them with the idea of collective organisation. In addition to building relationships with workers in their living areas through community work, GLU has also developed a repertoire of organising practices to reach out to workers outside of their workplaces in areas with a high concentration of garment factories with a particular focus on the industrial zone Peenya. Two central practices for approaching workers outside their workplaces are (1) holding factory gate meetings and (2) holding ‘junction meetings’. Where possible, GLU organisers hold factory gate meetings with workers after the end of their daily shifts in front of factories. In these gate meetings, the organisers distribute leaflets and other information on labour rights and the unions’ services for workers.

Furthermore, GLU employs creative organising practices such as street theatre. Given that the space in front of factory gates is, however, often tightly controlled by employers, GLU organisers have started to shift their organising activities from factory gates to strategic central junctions, as this GLU organiser explains:

Many factories don’t allow us to stand in front of the factory gate. They chase us away. Once, two organisers were even locked up in a factory. They had just been standing outside the factory gate, talking to workers and distributing pamphlets. Then the manager and some supervisors came and they violently dragged them inside the factory. Since then, we don’t stand directly in front of the factory any more. […] There is one junction where workers have to pass by so or so. So now we stand there. (INT5)

Factory gate and junction meetings serve GLU organisers mainly as a first contact point to get in touch with workers and raise awareness among workers for the possibility of receiving support from the union for workplace grievances. Individual workers are then invited to accompany GLU organisers to the union office to register their cases and to talk about potential interventions by GLU. Usually, GLU organisers intervene on behalf of individual workers by writing a letter to the respective factory management. Hence, a large part of GLU organisers’ time is spent solving individual workers’ problems in the workplace. As a GLU representative explains, the rationale for taking up individual workers’ cases is that there continues to be a strong need for awareness building as well as for gaining workers’ trust:

Locally here, we are spending a lot of time mainly on spreading awareness among the workers. We end up spending a lot of time on individual cases because it creates a bad impression if you don’t support that worker and they will then say: ‘The union did not support me’. In general, the situation for organising is very difficult. There is a lot of repression. So, we need to create awareness among workers about their rights to Freedom of Association and about the union. (INT36; translated from Kannada)

Hence, over the past years, GLU has handled a large number of individual workers’ cases, such as illegal terminations, non-payment of employers’ social contribution, denial of leave or maternity benefits and cases of sexual harassment. According to a GLU representative, for most women, sexual harassment and ‘production torture’—i.e. abusive behaviour and excessive work pressure by supervisors—are the main problems that motivate them to seek support from the union. It is hence gender-based and social issues rather than economic issues that motivate women to come to the union in the first place, as GLU’s president explains:

You know, 90% of garment workers here in Karnataka are women. So, they join the union because they face harassment and sexual harassment in the factory by their supervisors, and they want it to end. That was also my case. (INT4)

Against this background, GLU seeks to build relationships with workers through practices that address women garment workers not merely as workers but as working women. In their community activities and in factory gate and junction meetings, GLU organisers speak to the specific experiences that workers share due to their position as women in the workplace and in the broader society.

Whereas through these organising practices, GLU has achieved a total membership of around 6000 members since their foundation in 2012, their members have traditionally been distributed over a large number of factories. GLU’s focus on approaching workers in their living areas and at central street junctions in industrial areas has constrained GLU’s capacities for building a strong representation inside factories—a crucial precondition for moving from solving individual workers’ grievances to collective bargaining. Against this background, in addition to community and area-based organising practices, GLU has, over the past years, adopted various sets of strategic factory organising practices with the ultimate goal of negotiating collective bargaining agreements at the workplace level. These practices include (1) selecting target factories and (2) building and training factory committees. Selecting target factories first involved mapping GLU’s membership distribution across factories in Peenya and identifying the four factories with the most members, which were then chosen as target factories.

In the next step, GLU organisers started to build factory committees of 10 workers in each of the four selected target factories. Factory committees are conceptualised as internal union representation at the workplace, which addresses workers’ grievances with management independently. Factory committees shall thereby reduce the dependence of workers on GLU full-time organisers. Moreover, factory committee members shall act as organisers at the workplace and seek to expand GLU’s membership in the respective factory. Building factory committees involves several practices, including (1) selecting and inviting potential members, (2) holding factory committee meetings and (3) training committee members. When selecting potential factory committee members, GLU organisers apply two criteria: Firstly, they select workers who have shown particular leadership and communication skills in community or gate meetings. Secondly, GLU organisers seek to select workers from the various departments within a specific factory to ensure that committee members can reach out to different groups of workers in the factory. To form the committees, organisers initially invite about 15 to 20 workers from each factory to participate in a meeting, knowing that many workers may stop coming after the first meeting due to time constraints, pressure from their husbands or fear of victimisation, as a GLU representative explains:

For the factory committee, we first identify the leaders. We will identify the people who can take responsibility and talk to the management. From all sections, e.g. cutting section, packing section etc., we identify people who can take the responsibility, bring them 15–20 of them together, we then train them. Actually, choosing them from the gate meeting is very difficult. We conduct multiple meetings and identify and choose them. We tell them what they can do and check with them if we can form a committee and then select them as a committee member. So, if we select 20 people at this stage, it’ll further come down to 10, because 10 will still drop out for various reasons. (INT36, translated from Kannada)

Since workers labouring in Peenya’s factories live in geographically dispersed areas within and also outside the city, factory committee meetings usually take place directly after factory gate meetings in the GLU office. Factory committee meetings usually last for about half an hour and encompass lessons on labour law, the union’s functioning and the committee members’ role and responsibilities. Holding factory committee meetings directly after junction meetings allows GLU organisers to recruit workers directly from these meetings and bring them to the union office for training. However, since in the junction meetings, many workers from various factories come together, organisers report that they find it challenging to build and train a stable group of workers as factory committee members. Whereas about 30 to 40 workers participate in every factory committee meeting, organisers hardly achieve to gather the same 30 to 40 workers every week.

One of GLU’s main challenges for building factory committees and workplace bargaining power is building a stable group of workers who can be trained to take over responsibility inside the factory. Moreover, since GLU has not yet reached a critical membership level in target factories, union factory committee members cannot yet act openly as union representatives since they would risk victimisation by the management, as GLU’s president explains:

So right now, we tell the GLU members at the factories: Don’t say that you are a union member, you will just act as a worker and you will just speak with the workers, but don’t say you are a union member until we get more members in the factory. (INT36, translated from Kannada)

Nevertheless, GLU has managed to train some factory committee members in target factories who currently take up workers’ issues and negotiate them with the management, even though not officially in the name of the union. In this vein, GLU’s factory committee members in target factories have, for example, led smaller worker protests to successfully redress several law violations and unfair management practices, such as lack of drinking water, late wages or abusive behaviour by supervisors. Whereas the scope of these protests is limited to more minor issues, protests are nevertheless important because they help to increase committee members’ and workers’ confidence, as testified by this worker and active GLU member:

Actually, since I have become a union member, I am much more confident also inside the factory. I know now that the supervisor has no right to yell at me and that he must treat me with respect. So, before I was a member of the union I used to just cry silently, when the supervisor scolded me. But now I speak up to him and I tell him: Who gives you the right to speak to me like that? You have no right to speak to me like that. You must treat me with respect! (INT5)

However, over the three years during which research was conducted, GLU had yet to achieve a factory committee and membership base strong enough to engage employers in collective bargaining. As a GLU representative explains, their factory organising approach foresees that the union first needs to organise about 50% of the workforce to submit an official request to the management for collective bargaining. Given the repressive environment for union organising in Bangalore garment factories, GLU needs to be able to ensure worker leaders’ protection through collective workplace action, as GLU’s president explains:

As of now, if we write that these are all our committee members, they’ll be targeted. […] So, if the management wants to fire, say, ten of the committee members, then all the workers have to come to their support and tell the company that they will all leave if the committee members leave. […] So, we want a lot of members and we want them to be aware of the union and its activities. […] if there are 50% members, if they are strong, we can go to the labour department for collective bargaining. If there are less, we will fail. If all the workers are not aware of this and only leaders and few people support us, it won’t be useful. We will fail. (INT36)

Building a strong membership base and a second-rank leadership that can actively organise inside factories hence remains GLU’s most important challenge. GLU’s challenges in building a strong member and leadership inside factories need to be interpreted in light of the tension between their dominant community and area-based organising practices based on taking up workers’ individual grievances, and their attempts to build collective agency structures inside factories. In 2018 alone, GLU and Munnade together took up more than 500 individual cases of domestic or workplace rights violations (FEMNET, nd). Handling such large numbers of individual cases binds significant union resources since each case usually involves several attempts to contact the factory management, file a complaint with the labour department and follow up with individual workers. A GLU representative explains that the union invests these resources since they hope that individual workers who receive active support from the union will become organisers or worker leaders in their respective factories. However, given the ease with which workers can find a job in another garment factory (see Sect. 6.7), many workers regard working in a specific factory as a rather short-term arrangement. Hence, instead of becoming active union members at their respective workplaces, workers, in many cases, leave the job sooner or later, as exemplified in the following case reported by a GLU representative:

In a unit of [company name], one worker was transferred to another factory unit without his consent. So, I spoke to the management about this and told them that this will have consequences. They had already made all arrangements to transfer him. After I warned them, they cancelled the transfer. But that boy worked only for about 3 months after that and left the job to go back to his hometown where his father was sick. We feel bad when such things happen because we struggle a lot to get their issue solved and we hope that they will take leadership in their factory. But they just use us when they have an issue. And without even telling us, they leave. He could have taken leave and gone to his hometown but he quit the job. After many days of not being able to contact him, we got to know that he has quit the job. Such issues happen sometimes. (INT36, translated from Kannada)

Her statement that workers ‘use’ the union when they have a problem and then ‘leave’, reflects the inherent problem to the ‘service union’ model: the dominant practice through which full-time organisers relate with union members under this model is handling members’ individual issues and grievances. As a result, many resources are bound to union activities that do not create or promote spaces for developing workers’ ‘oppositional consciousness’ (Katz 2004) and collective agency. I argue here that the continued focus on solving individual grievances needs to be understood as resulting, at least partly from GLU’s continued close collaborations with Cividep and international donor NGOs in the form of project work. To understand the tensions within GLU’s practices of constructing spaces of organising, it is therefore essential to scrutinise the practices through which GLU constructs spaces of collaboration.

2.2 Spaces of Collaboration

GLU constructs spaces of collaboration through two main sets of practices and relationships: (1) by constructing relationships with local and international NGOs in the context of collaborations for funded project work and (2) by constructing relationships with international consumer campaigning networks through visiting training sessions and filing urgent appeals.

As mentioned before, GLU continues to maintain close relationships with the Bangalore-based NGO Cividep and with other local NGOs that have good networks with NGOs from the Global North. These local NGOs act as an intermediary between GLU and international NGOs funding specific projects implemented by GLU: On the one hand, since GLU full-time organisers speak little English, Cividep facilitates contacts and communication with international NGOs. On the other hand, Cividep also acts as official project partner for foreign NGOs and administers the project funding.

GLU today has projects with several NGOs from the Global North. These collaborations allow the union to tap into coalitional power resources in the form of financial resources. With these financial resources, GLU funds office rent, salaries for full-time organisers, executive and factory committee meetings, training sessions and cultural activities. The focus of these projects is usually on GLU’s community and counselling work and on awareness building among garment workers about their rights. As the first union in Bangalore, GLU has begun to engage with migrant workers from the Northern and North-Eastern states of India (see Sect. 6.7) in the context of a project funded by several European women and human rights organisations. As part of this project, GLU organisers provide information, counselling and training on labour rights to migrant workers. Moreover, GLU produces a union newsletter in Hindi language. At the same time, the project aims to gather data to produce public reports on the situation of migrant workers in Bangalore. As in other projects, Cividep plays a vital role in the project as an intermediary organisation that administers funds. The space of collaboration constructed around the project is shaped not only by GLU’s interests and strategic action frame as a membership-based organisation but also by the institutional logics of the involved NGOs as advocacy organisations.

As a result, the potential for GLU to build associational power resources and lasting bargaining power through this project collaboration has been limited. Since migrant workers represent a growing share of workers in Bangalore export-garment factories, engaging with migrant workers through awareness building may in the mid- and long-term strengthen GLU’s associational power, if migrant workers become active members of GLU. This prospect is, however, limited by the fact that many inter-state migrant workers only stay for limited time periods in the city to save a specific amount of money, e.g. for a family member’s wedding, and then return to their home villages. Moreover, the goal of the project, as formulated by the funding NGOs, is not primarily to build GLU’s associational power but rather to build public awareness for the situation of migrant workers in Bangalore. In the international NGOs’ institutional logic, GLU takes on the role of a strategic partner that enables NGOs to achieve their strategic goals of public awareness raising to address specific problems in the garment industry. This role as a strategic partner for public awareness raising activities is also expressed in this statement by a Cividep representative:

Sometimes the unions are part of a project. For example, with GLU we have that project with migrant workers from Eastern India. [...] Access to these young workers is difficult. They don’t speak the language, they live in hostels. We are publishing a report on this and GLU is doing worker education with these workers. Sometimes we depend on them to get data. Because they are a union, they are able to get better data from workers. (INT8)

Tensions between the institutional logic of NGOs as advocacy organisations and the organisational logic of unions as membership-based organisations also become apparent in the criteria against which international donor NGOs measure GLU’s success. Following the advocacy logic of NGOs, scope or outreach are important criteria for funders to legitimise their collaborations with GLU. In this logic, GLU is understood as a multiplicator organisation that should provide services and benefits to as many garment workers as possible. This logic is highlighted on the website of the German NGO FEMNET, who funds GLU’s and Munnade’s family and legal counselling activities. FEMNET writes that GLU and Munnade together have “access to over 25,000 women workers” (FEMNET, nd). The measure against which FEMNET evaluates successful implementation of projects is hence outreach. In this logic, to be successful, GLU organisers need to maximise the number of engagements with women, be it through providing them assistance in the form of family or legal counselling or through providing training.

As a result, how GLU constructs relationships with international NGOs hence influence the practices through which GLU organisers build relationships with workers: to ensure that project funding contracts with NGOs are renewed, GLU organisers need to maximise the number of workers who participate in their training sessions, meetings and counselling activities. However, this need to maximise scope leads to the fact that relationships with individual workers are often limited to interactions for a specific training session or to a series of punctual interactions that end when an individual worker’s problem has been solved.

The institutional logic of maximising outreach inherent to projects funded by international NGOs, therefore, conflicts with the logic of the union as a membership-based organisation: For the union to build associational and organisational power resources, the quality of relationships with workers and union members is more important than maximising the quantity of engagements. Consequently, the specific practices through which GLU builds and maintains collaborations with international NGOs in the context of funded projects have mixed effects for GLU’s capacities to build lasting bargaining power: On the one hand, through maintaining collaborations for funded project work, GLU is able to acquire financial resources to fund offices and organisers. On the other hand, a large part of organisers’ time is invested in building loose ties with workers that do not contribute to building the union’s organisational and associational power.

In addition to constructing spaces of collaboration with local and international NGOs around funded projects, GLU constructs spaces of collaboration with international consumer campaigning networks, and primordially with the CCC, through practices of visiting training sessions and filing urgent appeals. Collaborations with international campaigning networks serve to leverage moral power resources when struggling for the correction of labour rights violations. To construct and maintain relations with international consumer networks, GLU organisers regularly visit meetings and training sessions organised by these networks. Topics tackled in these meetings are, for example, labour rights or how to file urgent appeals or complaints. Whereas GLU organisers state that they already possess sufficient knowledge on these issues, they argue that these meetings are still important for networking. Personal interactions during these meetings build trust and understanding and hence allow for a quick contact and response in case of labour rights violations.

In addition to constructing relationships with international consumer campaigning networks, GLU is also an active member of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a labour-led international campaigning network involving unions and NGOs from production countries in Asia and from consumer countries in the Global North. The main focus of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance lies in producing reports on and campaigning for a living wage in the Asian garment industry. Members of the alliance meet regularly to discuss strategies for joint public campaigning to put pressure on brands to implement a living wage across their Asian supplier factories. Besides campaigning for living wages in the garment industry, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance also organises multi-stakeholder meetings with brands. GLU organisers have participated in a series of meetings with brands organised by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance on gender violence in Asian garment factories. GLU organisers stress that participating in meetings organised by the Asia Floor Wage campaign has helped them to construct relationships with various brands, whom they can now contact directly when receiving complaints from workers.

It is important to note that the strategic approach prioritised by both international consumer campaigning networks and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance is to hold brands (and not local employers) accountable for ensuring labour rights in the garment industry. This strategic framing of brands as primary agents of change has important consequences for how international campaigning networks construct spaces of contestation: instead of territorially embedded workplaces, international network spaces are constructed as primary arenas of contestation through email exchanges and international social media campaigns. As will be shown in the next section, this shift towards constructing spaces of contestation as dis-embedded network spaces is also characteristic of GLU’s strategic approach, which strongly relies on the interventions of brands and international consumer networks.

2.3 Spaces of Contestation

GLU constructs spaces of contestation mainly around issues raised to their organisers by individual workers in community or junction meetings. As mentioned before, GLU organisers see it as an essential practice to gain workers’ trust to take up all issues brought to them by workers, independent of workers being from a target factory. Therefore, GLU organisers usually collect issues from various factories during gate and junction meetings. Then, organisers group issues from factories belonging to the same company group to raise them with the respective factory and company managers, the labour department, and brands and international consumer organisations. More minor cases, such as late wages, non-payment of legally prescribed bonuses or non-payment of gratuities, can often be resolved by organisers in direct dialogue with the management. Other issues that concern groups of workers or that are not as easy to prove, however, usually require a combination of several practices, such as writing to the management and parallel filing a complaint at the labour department and contacting brands. Organisers report that, in most cases, factory and company managements ignore GLU’s initial requests for a meeting. In these cases, GLU contacts brands and international consumer organisations and uses their leverage to get the local garment factory management to meet with GLU organisers. In the remainder of this section, I will illustrate how GLU constructed a space of contestation around a series of labour rights violations that occurred in early 2017 in various factories belonging to the Bangalore export-garment company Gokaldas Exports. I will show how GLU used practices of complaint filing at the labour department and leveraging the influence of brands to engage the factory management in dialogue. At the same time, I will point out the limits of this strategic approach to constructing spaces of contestation for building sustained union bargaining power.

2.3.1 Tackling Labour Rights Violations at Gokaldas Exports

In early 2017, GLU organisers were notified by workers about a range of labour rights violations at factories belonging to the company group Gokaldas Exports. The violations included inter alia (1) several practices of overtime wage theft such as extending the regular working hours from eight hours to nine hours per day and giving ‘comp-offs’ (see Sect. 6.3), (2) sexual harassment and abusive behaviour by supervisors and (3) the illegal dismissal of a union worker activist in one factory. Upon learning about these labour rights violations, GLU organisers immediately took action at various levels: At the company level, GLU organisers contacted the respective factory managers and the central management of Gokaldas Exports. At the state level, GLU organisers filed a complaint with the labour department and the Department of Factories, Boilers, Industrial Safety & Health to leverage institutional power resources. Since the change of working hours was easy to prove for GLU organisers, labour inspectors ordered the factory management to immediately change the regular working hours back to eight hours per day.

Moreover, the management agreed to stop the illegal comp-off practice due to the interventions by GLU and the labour department. However, the Gokaldas management did not take any corrective action regarding the cases of sexual harassment and illegal termination of a union worker activist. Instead, the Gokaldas management denied that sexual harassment had happened and held that the termination of the GLU worker activist was justified because he had behaved violently towards another factory employee. The Gokaldas management not only refused to discuss these issues with GLU organisers directly but also refused to attend the conciliation meetings convened by the labour department following GLU’s formal complaint.

Given the management’s refusal to engage in dialogue with GLU directly or through the conciliation process in the labour department, GLU decided to take additional steps and to activate the leverage of brands and consumer campaigning networks at the international level. Drawing on the relationships constructed with brands during previous cases and during multi-stakeholder meetings, GLU contacted all brands sourcing from the respective factories of Gokaldas Exports, including H&M and GAP. In addition, GLU organisers filed an urgent appeal complaint with the CCC. Lastly, the organisers also informed the Fair Labour Association, a multi-stakeholder initiative involving predominantly US-based garment and sportswear brands and universities and civil society organisations. As an outcome of these combined practices of directly contacting brands and activating the leverage of consumer organisations, GLU organisers were invited to meetings with representatives from H&M’s and GAP’s regional sourcing offices. In these meetings, GLU organisers convinced both brands to tell the Gokaldas management to meet with GLU.

As a result, the Gokaldas management finally asked GLU organisers for an informal meeting to discuss the issues of sexual harassment and the illegal dismissal of a union activist. In the meeting, the management assured GLU that they would solve all problems, but neither provided a concrete action plan nor a written statement. When the management had not taken any action after several weeks, GLU once again wrote emails to brands and consumer organisations. Only after a year and a half of continued liaising with brands, international consumer organisations and the Gokaldas management, GLU achieved to engage the Gokaldas management in serious negotiations and finally won a compensation of 150,000 Rupees (approx. 2,000 US$) for the dismissed worker activist.

Gaining this compensation—amounting to more than a yearly average wage in the Bangalore garment industry—represented a crucial victory for GLU. However, this victory did little to strengthen GLU’s workplace bargaining power inside the factory for two reasons. First, since GLU could not reinstate the worker activist, they lost an important resource for advancing the factory-internal union-building process. Second, the space of contestation was constructed predominantly through network practices of appealing to and liaising with brands and consumer campaigning organisations and did not involve any practices of collective worker protest or action at the workplace. Hence, even though the struggle continued for more than a year, workers from the factory did not play an active role in it and therefore had limited opportunities for developing strategic capacities.

2.4 Discussion: Lessons from GLU’s Case

Which general implications result from GLU’s case for the enabling and constraining effects that different relations of local unions with other actors have for building unions’ bargaining power vis-à-vis employers? Three major implications shall be highlighted here: First, with regard to unions’ relations and interactions with workers in spaces of organising, the case of GLU illustrates, in particular, the limitations of community organising practices that focus on building loose ties with a large number of workers through punctual interactions in training or counselling sessions. Whereas these organising practices help the union to increase membership numbers, they contribute little to building the union’s associational power base since these members can hardly be mobilised for collective action. This fact has been exemplified in the difficulties that GLU organisers face in their attempts to build stable factory committees in selected target factories.

GLU’s organising practices are in turn directly shaped by their practices of constructing spaces of collaboration. The union’s focus on building loose ties with a large number of workers needs to be understood as shaped by the strategic frameworks of the funded project collaborations GLU maintains with various NGOs from the Global North. Since financial resources flow unilaterally from Northern NGOs to GLU in these collaborations, Northern NGOs have the power to define the collaboration’s terms and conditions and strategic goal. NGOs as advocacy organisations, however, tend to have a strategic action frame that differs from the one of unions as membership-based organisations. Whereas NGOs aim to maximise their outreach and prioritise the quantity of interactions, for unions, the quality of interactions is equally important: a large membership on paper is of little use if these members cannot be mobilised for strategic action. The case of GLU hence illustrates, second, that when unions’ collaborative relations with external actors are characterised by asymmetrical power relations and incompatible strategic action frames, these collaborations are likely to hamper rather than foster local unions’ capacities for building associational and organisational power. In this light, the case of GLU provides essential insights into the structural effects that networks of collaborations constructed by unions themselves with transnational actors have on unions’ everyday organisational practices and internal relations (cf. Zajak et al. 2017; see also Fütterer and López Ayala 2018).

Lastly, with regard to the relations constructed by unions with capital actors and allies in spaces of contestation, the findings from the analysis of GLU’s agency strategy make a renewed case for arguments from labour scholars that the leverage of moral power through collaborations with transnational consumer networks cannot make up for lack of associational power on the ground (see e.g. Hauf 2017; Zajak 2017). While still working towards building a significant membership base inside factories, GLU has to rely on the leverage of consumer organisations and brands over employers when contesting labour rights—with mixed outcomes. Hence, GLU’s experiences also point at the limits of a mere ‘up-scaling’ strategy that relies exclusively on relations and actions at the transnational level without strategically intertwining them with actions at the workplace and local level.

In the next section, I turn to the third of the three Bangalore garment unions: the Karnataka Garment Workers Union.

3 Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KGWU)

KGWU was officially founded in 2009 by former GATWU activists employed at the Bangalore-based NGO FEDINA. FEDINA had also been part of the initial community organising project with garment workers in the early 2000s, funded by Oxfam. During these early years, a geographical division of organising work between FEDINA and Cividep had been established. Whereas Cividep activists had been organising predominantly in workers’ living areas along Mysore Road, FEDINA activists had concentrated their organising work along Hosur Road in the areas Bommanahalli and Tavarekere. Like Cividep, FEDINA had started approaching garment workers in their communities through saving groups. According to KGWU’s honorary president, FEDINA activists, however, soon felt that workers were ready for unionisation and that the saving groups approach should be abandoned in favour of a more strategic union organising approach. As a result of these internal strategic differences, in 2008, FEDINA activists decided to form a separate union.

At the time research was conducted, KGWU had, according to its own reports, around 3000 members. These are located predominantly in the area along Hosur Road in the East of Bangalore, which has traditionally represented the geographical focus of KGWU’s work. Since 2017, KGWU has expanded their organising activities to also include factories along Mysore Road, in the industrial area Peenya and the district of Davanagere, located about 250 km from Bangalore. The expansion of KGWU’s organising work has been linked to a collaboration with the Chinese NGO China Labour Bulletin (CLB). In the context of this collaboration, KGWU has undergone a strategic shift from an originally area-based worker organising and reactive fire-fighting approach to a more proactive, strategic factory organising approach.

The strategic evolution of KGWU has hence shown characteristics that can also be found in the trajectories of GATWU and GLU. However, how KGWU has linked changes in their organising strategies with changes in constructing collaborations with external actors differs from the ways in which GATWU and GLU construct spaces of collaboration, as will be illustrated in the following. The remainder of this section illustrates how KGWU’s practices of constructing spaces of organising, collaboration and contestation have evolved over the years from a fire-fighting approach to a strategic factory organising, collective bargaining approach. It moreover shows how the decisive driving factor in KGWU’s strategic evolution has been a new collaborative relationship that the union has established with the Chinese labour organisation China Labour Bulletin since 2016.

3.1 Spaces of Organising

As mentioned earlier, similar to GATWU and GLU, KGWU has undergone a change in how they construct spaces of organising from an area-based organising approach towards a factory-centred organising approach. Until 2015, KGWU followed an area-based organising approach, in which spaces of organising were constructed predominantly outside factories through two main organising practices: (1) holding area committees and (2) holding factory committee meetings. Monthly area committee meetings were held in workers’ living areas and gathered workers from different factories. These meetings aimed to inform workers about their labour rights, to discuss workplace problems and train workers regarding the role and function of the union. In addition, KGWU held regular factory committee meetings with workers from specific factories, usually at the end of a workday, to discuss factory problems and spread awareness among workers about their rights. When KGWU organisers learned about labour rights violations from workers during these meetings, they would then take up the issue and intervene with the management.

However, dissatisfaction with this area-based organising approach grew among KGWU activists when after almost a decade of organising, the area-based organising approach had still not enabled them to engage in collective bargaining. As their honorary president explains, two factors were hindering KGWU from starting a collective bargaining process in factories in their geographical organising areas: First, in the area along Hosur Road, where KGWU’s organising work was (and remains) concentrated, there were a lot of smaller, workshop-like factories. Since in particular, in these smaller factories there were a lot of basic labour rights violations, KGWU activists concentrated their interventions on these smaller factories for a long time. However, due to their small size, these factories could be easily closed down and be reopened in another place under a different name by the management in reaction to worker organising. Hence, the footloose nature of these smaller factories severely constrained KGWU’s ability to engage in collective bargaining with the management, as a KGWU representative explains:

At that time, small factories were violating a lot of laws. And there was no PF [Provident Fund), no ESI [Employees’ State Insurance], wages were not paid on time. So, lots of issues, lots of problems were there. And also, those factories were the ones which were closing down often. By the time you started to organise in […] that factory, they would say that the factory was closing down. So, I think we spent a lot of time like that on small factories thinking that small factories workers would be responding easier. (INT45)

Hence, whereas KGWU, in some cases, achieved to win back wages and compensations for workers from small factories that had abruptly closed down, the union, however, never achieved to engage employers from small factories in collective bargaining.

It was not until the year 2015 that KGWU organisers began developing a more systematic, factory-centred organising approach. According to a KGWU representative, KGWU leaders and organisers only then found the external conditions favourable enough to adopt a more strategic factory organising approach. After almost a decade of union organising in the Bangalore export-garment sector, not only by KGWU but also by the two other unions, workers finally became acquainted with the concept, idea and benefits of unionisation and organised collective worker action. Moreover, the market consolidation process in the Bangalore export-garment cluster following the end of the Multi-Fibre-Agreement and the quota system (see also Sect. 5.2.1) had led to the concentration of production within fewer, larger factories, often employing several hundred or even thousands of workers. These larger factories possessed greater financial capacities to withstand economic slumps or industrial action by workers.

Whereas the external local conditions provided new opportunities for long-term strategic organising in selected factories, KGWU organisers still lacked the internal organisational resources for developing and implementing a strategic factory organising, collective bargaining approach. For KGWU to develop these strategic capacities, a new set of collaborative relations was decisive: In 2016, KGWU started a new collaboration with the Chinese labour rights NGO ‘China Labour Bulletin’ (CLB). Through this collaboration, KGWU received financial resources to fund full-time organiser positions and union offices in Bommanahalli, Peenya and on Mysore Road. In addition, KGWU received a series of strategy training sessions to develop a new, proactive factory organising and collective bargaining strategy. As a KGWU representative explains, in the meetings with CLB, KGWU leaders and organisers developed the strategic mindset and the planning capacities that enabled them to construct spaces of organising more systematically around selected target factories to build a long-term collective bargaining process:

So, when we started talking about [how] it could be beneficial to both the factory and the worker if there is […] a bargaining process, it required a lot of mindset change. […] For that the [collaboration] with CLB was very crucial […]. [Now] we are strategising on collective bargaining, whether we can do something in one or two factories at least. That [collaboration] has given us some more focus in our work. Now we identify how the factories are organised, what brand they are manufacturing. (INT30)

As an outcome of the training with the CLB, KGWU has started to concentrate a large part of their resources on organising in two selected target factories. These two factories were selected based on four criteria that KGWU activists developed in training sessuions with the CLB: First, the selected factories are part of large export-garment company groups. As a result, both factories have a relatively stable financial situation, and, according to worker reports, had received stable orders in preceding years. Second, in both factories, there were a lot of labour rights violations and, therefore, ample room for improvement. Third, KGWU organisers have long-standing members in both factories who have participated in prior struggles alongside KGWU. Fourth and last, the selected factories both produce to a large extent for H&M, which KGWU activists saw as an opportunity in two regards: On the one hand, KGWU organisers saw the opportunity to use H&M as an additional leverage on the factory management to prevent or redress management attempts of union busting. On the other hand, KGWU saw H&M’s living wage promiseFootnote 1 as a tool for mobilising workers and engaging them in collective bargaining (FN7).

As part of the target factory selection process, KGWU activists conducted so-called ‘factory mappings’, which involved gathering information on several aspects of the factory, including the mother company’s financial situation, the number of workers and departments, main buyers and present labour rights violations. Moreover, factory mappings involved documenting end-consumer prices gathered from price tags and comparing these in relation to workers’ wages. This mapping process served as an important organising tool since it allowed KGWU to involve workers in the target factory selection process actively. By gathering and bringing together information, KGWU organisers and workers developed critical strategic and analytical capacities, such as knowledge about the organisation of the factory, the ability to identify potential chokepoints and an enhanced understanding of the profit distribution and power relations in the value chain. Many workers stated during a training session with CLB that they got to know and understand the broader organisation and power relations of the factory and the value chain for the first time through the factory mapping process (FN7). According to KGWU’s honorary president, this new knowledge and understanding of the power relations and organisation within their own factory also helped to build workers’ sense of ownership of the union building and the collective bargaining process:

Factory mapping helped especially for workers to understand their industry and their position in it. I mean, it is easy to complain and say, you know, these are all the problems. But you need to understand how you tackle it, that the union is not some outside agency which has to come in and correct it for you, but that you also have a role in it. I think the mapping process helped a lot to strengthen that understanding. That they [the workers] have to take responsibility also. As an external agency only, we had no strength really to challenge the management. (INT45)

In the two selected target factories, KGWU’s organising work now involves various sets of practices that follow a snowball system. First, an initial core group of worker activists in the factory is asked to gather workers from each department and bring them to the regular target factory meetings. These workers are then prepared and trained to act as worker organisers and bring further workers from their own department to the next meeting. Since organising inside the factory is often not possible at the initial stage of the organising process due to tight management control, KGWU activists also approach workers at the factory gate and in their living areas. To this end, the initial organising process also involves mapping workers’ living areas.

Target factory meetings are held regularly and serve as a space for discussing workplace problems building workers’ mindset as union representatives and organisers inside the factory. As a KGWU representative explains, one of the most important elements in these meetings is building full-time organisers’ and worker activists’ strategic capacities to negotiate and reach a strategic compromise with the management:

And so [when] we started that [factory organising process] in 2017, we […] took some time to understand the concept and you know what collective bargaining is. […] When you are always in the mindset of attacking the enemy, often you don’t prepare yourself to negotiate or you know strategically compromise that sort of thing. You want to advance. You think you have to win it all at once. (INT45)

Besides serving as spaces to develop workers’ strategic mindset, target factory meetings also serve as spaces to discuss any problems in the factory and to develop collective demands in a democratic process. Generally, target factory meetings are open to all workers from the respective factory. However, only union members have the right to vote on strategic decisions. Once a significant number of members from various departments has been reached in a factory, secret ballot elections are conducted to officially form a union factory committee, usually consisting of nine worker representatives. This union factory committee represents the workforce in the collective bargaining process.

As mentioned earlier, KGWU’s practices of establishing an international collaboration with the CLB played an important role in enabling KGWU to develop their new factory organising, collective bargaining approach. The following section introduces this collaboration in more detail. It reveals how KGWU’s active engagement in constructing the relationship with the CLB was itself the outcome of a strategic shift in KGWU’s practices of constructing spaces of collaboration.

3.2 Spaces of Collaboration

Collaborations with local and international organisations have played an essential role in KGWU’s history and strategic development. As mentioned earlier, KGWU has traditionally maintained close connections with the local NGO FEDINA. At the time the research was conducted, all of KGWU’s full-time activists were employed through FEDINA, and many had priorly worked on FEDINA’s other projects. Since the 1980s FEDINA has been organising different marginalised groups in South India through local ‘Social Action Groups’. These Social Action Groups aim to foster collective grassroots organising and empower marginalised groups such as Dalits, smallholder farmers, landless labourers, informal sector workers, and slum-dwellers (FEDINA, nd).

Whereas during their early years, KGWU leaders and organisers mainly constructed spaces of collaboration at the local level, with the shift towards strategic organising in large supplier factories of major US and EU brands, KGWU leaders began to construct relationships also with international consumer and labour networks. An interviewed KGWU representative recounts that in a first intent to move beyond KGWU’s initial fire-fighting approach in the early 2010s, KGWU activists participated in regular meetings of the CCC and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. The two networks were planning and implementing public media campaigns to pressure H&M into fulfilling their announcement of implementing a living wage at all their strategic suppliers by 2018. To this end, they had initiated a multi-stakeholder process involving unions and labour rights NGOs from several Asian countries and brands to discuss what living wages on the continent should be. As part of this process, KGWU and other involved local unions collected data on living costs, inflation and workers’ regular expenses, which were then used to determine a living wage for the Asian garment industry. Findings were then presented to brands at several round table meetings.

The interviewed KGWU representative stresses that participating in the network spaces of collaboration constructed under the Asia Floor Wage Alliance helped KGWU activists to develop strategic resources and capacities. Through discussions in the Alliance, KGWU activists gained an enhanced understanding and knowledge about the structure of the value chain and the tactics of harnessing brands’ leverage over suppliers. Nevertheless, KGWU leaders felt that participating in the activities of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance had only very limited effect in terms of producing material improvements for workers on the ground for two reasons: First and foremost, practices of researching workers’ living expenses and participating in round table meetings were somewhat disconnected from KGWU’s on-the-ground organising work and hence did not help the union to engage employers in collective bargaining. This detachment is exemplified in a statement by a KGWU leader, who says that he experienced the multi-stakeholder process under the Asia Floor Wage Alliance “more [as] a theoretical exercise than [as] a practical unionisation process” (INT30). Second, KGWU leaders found that the strategic approach of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance to prioritise pressure on brands produced only limited material improvements in working conditions on the ground. According to these leaders, brands only intervened and exerted pressure on manufacturers in case of particularly cruel labour rights violations. However, with the industry’s structural transformation towards ‘organised’ production in large tier one garment factories, such cruel labour rights violations were not as prevalent any more as in earlier years. As a result, interventions by brands became a less effective tool to achieve improvements for workers, as a KGWU representative explains:

While this [multi stakeholder process] was being organised and brands would come and sit [at the roundtable meetings], it would end at that. The only place, to some extent, where brands could help, was when the management or export company was resorting to very cruel violations. If there are very cruel violations then sometimes you can threaten them that you will expose it in Europe or some other country. But most of the export houses, [tier one] manufacturing companies don’t resort to very cruel measures: They are within the minimum wage or just above the limit. They provide a crèche, which may be not functioning too well. but they provide a creche. (INT30)

In the face of the limitations of the brand-led strategic approach for improving working conditions favoured by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, in 2016, KGWU activists decided to shift their focus towards building collaborations that would help them to strengthen their own bargaining power and position vis-à-vis manufacturers. It was then that KGWU’s honorary president was provided with a contact of CLB at an international union conference. The official collaboration between CLB and KGWU started in 2017 and involved financial support for three worker centres in Bommanahalli, Peenya and Mysore Road, including three full-time organiser positions in each centre. Moreover, the collaboration comprised a series of training sessions with the explicit objective of developing KGWU’s organising and collective bargaining strategy.

As opposed to other project-based collaborations between local unions in the Global South and NGOs in the Global North, in which the funding NGO largely determines the project agenda and activities, the collaboration between CLB and KGWU was set up as a joint and mutual learning process. During the initial training session, CLB’s director explained that their rationale for initiating this project was to gain first-hand experience in building a collective bargaining process from scratch—and experience that was difficult for CLB to gain in China, where independent unions are not allowed. KGWU leaders and organisers, in turn, stated as the primary rationale for the collaboration the aim to develop their strategising, organising and negotiating capacities and skills through the collaboration with the CLB (FN7). In all strategic decisions regarding activities to be conducted or steps to be taken in specific labour struggles, KGWU leaders and organisers have the lead and are only supported by CLB with strategic advice.

In summary, KGWU’s strategic turn towards developing a proactive, factory-centred collective bargaining approach and the related changes in constructing spaces of organising have also been accompanied by changes in how KGWU constructs spaces of collaboration. Following the realisation that lasting improvements for workers beyond the mere implementation of minimum labour standards can only be brought about through building associational and workplace bargaining power and engaging employers in collective bargaining, KGWU leaders decided to only engage in collaborations that would help the union to develop their collective bargaining strategy. As a result, KGWU now constructs spaces of collaboration with international organisations, not primarily as spaces for mobilising moral power resources. Instead, KGWU focuses on constructing collaborations as learning spaces where union leaders, organisers and activists can develop their strategic union-building and collective capacities.

The following section describes how KGWU leaders and activists put strategic learnings from the collaboration with CLB into practice. To this end, I zoom in on a struggle for collective bargaining and union recognition that KGWU led between 2017 and 2018 at one of the two target factories called Shahi 8.

3.3 Spaces of Contestation

Since the shift to the new factory organising, collective bargaining approach, KGWU has constructed spaces of contestation primarily around collective worker issues that can be linked to the union’s collective bargaining strategy. In this line, KGWU has led several struggles at the two selected target factories and in other major Bangalore export-garment factories to address problems affecting a large number of workers. In the remainder of this section, I will zoom in on a struggle for union recognition and collective bargaining that KGWU conducted at the target factory Shahi 8. In this struggle, KGWU activists implemented the pro-active factory mapping and organising strategy developed in strategy meetings with the CLB. Following this strategy, KGWU formed a factory union, developed a charter of demands with workers and handed it over to the management. The management, however, reacted with a violent attack on and suspension of the elected worker leaders. These events were followed by a ten-week-long struggle by KGWU activists for the reinstatement of the suspended worker activists and KGWU’s recognition as official collective bargaining partner. As an outcome of this struggle, KGWU signed a memorandum of understanding with the management of Shahi, in which Shahi agreed to reinstate the suspended KGWU worker activists and to respect workers’ rights to freedom of association. Moreover, the management agreed to hold monthly meetings with KGWU representatives to discuss any collective worker problems in the factory. Despite falling short of engaging the management in collective wage negotiations, signing the memorandum of understanding still represented a significant victory for KGWU, since it established a formal dialogue structure between the union and the management and de facto secured workers’ rights to collective organisation.

In the following, I outline the events that led up to the struggle at Shahi in more detail and provide insights into the various practices and relationships through which KGWU constructed the space of contestation around this struggle. To conclude, I will assess to which extent KGWU was able to use the victory of the memorandum of understanding with Shahi to achieve a lasting shift of capital-labour power relations in the workplace and thereby pave the way for a subsequent collective bargaining agreement.

3.3.1 KGWU’s Struggle at Shahi 8: Background and Chronology of Events

Shahi 8 is a production unit owned by Shahi Exports, one of India’s largest garment exporters. The production unit Shahi 8 employs about 3,000 workers and is located in the West of Bangalore on Magadi Road, slightly on the outskirts of the Bangalore urban area. KGWU had been in contact with workers from the factory since 2011 and handled some individual worker grievances under the area-based organising approach. KGWU organisers started to intensify their organising efforts in the factory after it was selected as a target factory in March 2017. For the rest of the year 2017, KGWU full-time organisers invested significant time in building a membership base in the factory through the strategic factory mapping process (see Sect. 7.3.1). By the end of 2017, KGWU had reached a number of around 140 members, amounting to an organisation rate of about 5% of the total workforce. In January 2018, KGWU held a general body meeting with all members from the factory, during which collective demands were developed and factory worker representatives were elected. The collective demands defined at this meeting were: (1) access to clean drinking water for all workers; (2) reliable and safe bus transportation for workers; (3) a wage increase of 3,000 Rupees per month for all workers.

In the weeks after the general body meeting, KGWU worker representatives collected approximately 700 signatures from Shahi 8 workers in support of the collective Charter of Demands. During this time, factory managers and supervisors began calling workers from different departments for meetings, advising them not to sign any documents from the union. On April 2nd, two worker representatives gave the management a formal letter introducing their collective demands. In the following two days, violent attacks from managers and supervisors on KGWU full-time activists as well as on elected worker representatives took place. When KGWU activists came to the factory on April 3rd to collect worker representatives’ signatures on a copy of the charter of demands, the activists were circled by managers and forbidden to leave the factory premises for about three hours. On April 4th, one of the elected worker representatives arrived ten minutes late to work and was stopped by a group of factory managers and supervisors, who attacked him verbally and physically. When other worker representatives and union members came to aid their colleague, another group of workers siding with the management came out of the factory and attacked the unionised workers. In the end, out of the 15 unionised workers who had been attacked, five had to be treated in hospital. The management, in turn, framed the attack on the unionised workers as a clash between two groups of workers and suspended all 15 unionised workers under the pretence of having instigated violence in the factory.

In the following twelve weeks, KGWU conducted a struggle for the reinstatement of the KGWU worker representatives and the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. In this struggle, KGWU leaders and organisers constructed and intertwined different sets of relationships with various actors—including labour department officers, police officers, international labour rights NGOs, consumer networks, and brands. The struggle finally led to the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the Shahi management and KGWU on the June 25th 2018, in which the Shahi management agreed to reinstate all suspended workers and to respect workers’ rights to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining. In this line, the management also agreed to hold monthly meetings with KGWU to discuss issues in the factory and to conduct free and secret elections to the mandatory workplace committees. Figure 7.6 provides a graphic representation of the timeline of events.

Fig. 7.6
A timeline from March 2017 till today with halts in March 2017, January 2018, 2 April 2018, 4 April 2018, and 25 June 2018. Information for each halt and between 2 halts is given.

Source Author based on interview data

Timeline of events of KGWU’s struggle at Shahi 8 in 2018.

In the following, I will lay out the different practices and relationships through which KGWU constructed the space of contestation around the Shahi 8 case and examine to which extent KGWU activists and workers were able to develop strategic capacities and to activate different sets of power resources within the various relationships constructed at multiple levels.

3.3.2 Filing Complaints with the Labour Department and the Police at the State Level

As a first measure, immediately after the attack on the unionised workers, KGWU activists filed complaints at the police department and the labour department against the management for attacking KGWU worker representatives. In both cases, KGWU’s practices of constructing relations with higher officials at the state level were decisive for leveraging institutional power vis-à-vis management. In the case of the police complaint, KGWU activists found that on the day of the attack, the management had already filed a criminal case at the local police station against KGWU’s worker representatives for instigating violence inside the factory. As a consequence, the police officers at the local station refused to register KGWU’s complaint against the management. Since KGWU activists had experienced this type of situation in the past, they had already developed the practice of contacting the police division higher in rank. Having established this contact in previous situations allowed KGWU activists to quickly file their complaints without having to inquire about the right person to contact. By filing the police complaint against the managers involved in the attack, KGWU ensured that their version of events was officially recorded, providing a counterweight to the complaint made by the management.

Moreover, to increase the weight of their complaint and maximise the chance that the police would take action, KGWU activated additional institutional and moral power resources by registering their complaint under the Prevention of Atrocities Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act of 1989. The Indian Prevention of Atrocities Act states that any kind of discrimination or violence against members of ‘scheduled castes’, presents a criminal offense of particular gravity. Therefore, complaints filed under this Act are usually given priority by the police and state authorities. Since three of the attacked KGWU worker representatives belonged to the Dalit caste—a caste formerly considered as ‘untouchables’, which is now registered as a ‘scheduled caste’—KGWU filed the complaint against the management attack under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. This strategy proved successful since several prominent newspapers with national coverage, including the Deccan Herald, published articles on the management attack on workers at Shahi 8.Footnote 2

As mentioned before, in addition to the complaint at the police department, KGWU filed a complaint at the labour department against the violation of the right to freedom of association and against the illegal suspension of the KGWU worker activists. However, as explained in Sect. 6.5, filing a complaint at the labour department is usually not a very effective way for unions to appeal violations of freedom of association: Usually, the management’s word stands against the union’s word. As a result, disputes around violations of the right to freedom of association are usually referred to the court for adjudication, where they may be pending for several years. In the Shahi 8 case, KGWU organisers, therefore, combined filing the complaint at the labour department with making an emergency call directly to the Bangalore deputy labour commissioner while the attack at the Shahi 8 factory was happening. Due to the gravity of the attack, the deputy labour commissioner immediately sent a labour inspector to the factory to conduct an independent inquiry. In his report, the labour inspector confirmed that a management attack on KGWU worker leaders had occured. Again, here KGWU organisers benefitted from having already established a relationship with the deputy labour commissioner in previous interactions, allowing them to act quickly.

KGWU’s practice of constructing strategic relationships with high-level state officials also played an essential role in the subsequent conciliation process at the labour department. When the Shahi management blocked the conciliation meetings and the assistant labour commissioner chairing the meetings remained passive about it, KGWU organisers personally approached the labour commissioner to ask for support. Creating attention for the case at the highest level within the state labour department led the assistant labour commissioner to finally take on a more active stance during the meetings and to demand the management to make concessions, as a KGWU representative explains: “We used that [the personal contact with labour commissioner] just to keep the labour department a little more in our favour. Normally they easily collude with the management” (INT48). As a result of this more active role by the assistant labour commissioner and combined pressure on the Shahi management from various public campaigns, KGWU finally achieved a settlement in the conciliation process. This settlement included the reinstatement of the suspended workers and the signing of the memorandum of understanding.

It is important to note that the settlement was achieved by KGWU not only by leveraging institutional power resources through filing complaints at the police and labour department. It was through the combination of institutional power resources with various other coalitional power resources that KGWU was able to push the Shahi management into signing the memorandum of understanding. The relationships and practices through which KGWU could leverage these power resources will be laid out in the next section.

3.3.3 Seizing Coalitional Power Resources from Relationships with International Labour Rights Organisations

In terms of leveraging coalitional power resources in the Shahi 8 case, two types of relationships were of particular importance for KGWU: (1) the relationship with the CLB which provided KGWU with resources in form of strategic advice and (2) a new relationship with the WRC, which helped KGWU to put pressure on brands and thereby to activate their leverage over local manufacturers.

The collaboration with the CLB proved important in the Shahi 8 case since regular counselling with the CLB helped KGWU develop their strategic actions and plan the next step. In this context, the CLB also encouraged and trained KGWU organisers to develop a public social media campaign targeting the Shahi management. With the support of CLB, KGWU organisers, who had not engaged with social media before set up a Twitter campaign that generated considerable public attention for the Shahi 8 case in India. According to KGWU leaders, the campaign contributed significantly to make the Shahi management sign the memorandum of understanding. The success of the campaign was linked to KGWU’s strategy of seizing the public attention of the wedding of Anand Ahuja, owner of Shahi Exports, to Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor in May 2018—one month after the attack on KGWU worker representatives at Shahi 8. Since Sonam Kapoor had publicly endorsed feminist positions in the past, KGWU took the opportunity to address her publicly on Twitter and ask her to take a stand for the rights of women workers at her fiancé’s company. Whereas the idea of starting a social media campaign had come from the CLB, KGWU used their knowledge of territorially embedded social relations to leverage moral power resources vis-à-vis the Shahi management.

In addition to setting up the public campaign at the national level, KGWU also constructed relationships with international consumer organisations to leverage pressure from brands on the Shahi management. To this end, KGWU activists engaged with the WRC. According to KGWU’s honorary president, the decision to engage with the WRC was motivated by the fact that by letting the WRC handle contacts with brands, KGWU would be able to concentrate their resources on pushing the conciliation process at the labour department forward and on keeping the suspended KGWU activists engaged in the union’s activities. Hence, KGWU had established a division of labour with the WRC, in which KGWU activists provided detailed information about ongoing events and the WRC, in turn, handled communication with brands. In addition, WRC put pressure on brands by publishing an independent investigation report laying out the details of the management attack on KGWU worker activists (WRC 2018). The wide attention in international and Indian press and social media that the report received led brands to finally put pressure on the Shahi management to sign the memorandum of understanding with KGWU.

As shown, the combination of different types of coalitional relationships helped KGWU to develop the strategic capacities and power resources that led to the signing of the memorandum of understanding with the Shahi management. Strategic advice from the CLB enabled KGWU leaders and organisers to leverage moral power over Shahi through the Twitter campaign at the national level. The collaboration with the WRC, in turn, allowed KGWU to leverage indirect pressure on the Shahi management from brands at the international level as a secondary tactic.

3.3.4 From the MoU to Collective Bargaining at the Workplace Level?

It is important to note that the strategic practices undertaken by KGWU in the Shahi 8 struggle constructed spaces of contestation mainly outside the factory. Direct confrontations with the management took place either at the labour department or in network media spaces but not at the workplace. This shift from the workplace to other places and network spaces as central arenas of contestation was due to two reasons: First, after the suspension of the KGWU worker representatives, the management had installed an atmosphere of fear in the factory, threatening to dismiss anyone who would talk to KGWU. Second, due to the upcoming Karnataka state elections in May 2018, the police did not grant KGWU permission to hold public protests outside the factory. As a result, workers from Shahi 8 participated only marginally in the space of contestation. KGWU’s involvement with workers was limited to informing workers about the ongoing developments in the struggle through home visits.

As a result, after signing the memorandum of understanding and the return of the 15 workers to the factory, KGWU faced severe difficulties in turning this victory into sustained workplace bargaining power. In a secret ballot election for worker representatives conducted by the management as part of the memorandum of understanding, KGWU worker representatives could not win the majority vote and hence failed to be elected as worker representatives. KGWU leaders attribute this failure to the following reasons: First, the elections had taken place shortly after worker activists’ reinstatement, giving KGWU limited time and opportunities to use the victory of the memorandum of understanding to organise workers. Second, the immediate heat of the struggle in response to the attack had already worn off among worker leaders. Moreover, KGWU had lost members in the factory during the months following the attack, characterised by limited worker involvement. Hence, KGWU activists and worker leaders had to start over with the organising and collective bargaining process, as this union coordinator explains:

It was very difficult initially. We thought after they were reinstated we would increase the numbers. That was what all of us were expecting but which didn’t happen. But now slowly the membership is increasing. I think 40, 50 they have enrolled beyond that 140 members we had when we handed over the charter of demands. (INT48)

As a consequence of these difficulties, KGWU had in March 2019 not yet been able to negotiate any issues beyond workers’ day-to-day grievances in the monthly meetings with the Shahi 8 management. KGWU’s honorary president reports that they have tried to use the monthly meetings with the Shahi management to try to negotiate higher wages, but without success:

Wage is a topic which has been difficult to address. As soon as you raise it, they [the management] reject it. So, they are not even willing to talk too much because they say the industry is going through a very bad period. (INT48)

Against this backdrop, the outcome of KGWU’s struggle at Shahi 8 exemplifies once more that coalitional and moral power resources can only reinforce but never substitute associational workplace bargaining power. Given that KGWU’s membership base at Shahi 8 was only around 5% of the total workforce, the Shahi management did not feel pressured to recognise KGWU as a collective bargaining partner. At the same time, with the official commitment of the Shahi 8 management to recognise workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining in the memorandum of understanding, KGWU had paved the way for an open organising process in the factory. However, organising the majority of workers in the factory is a long process requiring sustained organising efforts. Efforts by KGWU to engage the Shahi management in collective wage negotiations are, therefore, still ongoing.

3.4 Discussion: Lessons from KGWU’s Case

Which lessons can we draw from KGWU’s case with regard to which types of interactions and relations enable unions in garment producing countries to build lasting bargaining power vis-à-vis employers? I suggest that we can learn three important lessons from KGWU’s case: First, regarding interactions and relations with workers in spaces of organising, KGWU’s case highlights both the new opportunities and the challenges for organising in larger tier one supplier factories. Past studies have primarily stressed the new opportunities for collective bargaining for unions in garment producing countries resulting from the emergence of new, strategic large tier one suppliers with enhanced financial capacities, which are able to endure through prolonged periods of worker strikes (see e.g. Kumar 2019a, b). KGWU’s experiences partially confirm this argument since the increasing concentration of production in the Bangalore export-garment cluster in large factories represented one central enabling condition in KGWU’s strategic turn towards a factory organising, collective bargaining approach. At the same time, however, the union faced significant challenges when implementing this strategic approach in a large tier one garment factory with about 3,000 workers. The large number of workers combined with tight manager and supervisor control inside the factory made it difficult for KGWU to reach a significant membership level in the workplace, forcing the union to initiate a collective bargaining process with an organisation rate of only about 5% of the total workforce. As a result, KGWU was not able to counter the management’s repression after the handover of the charter of demands with collective industrial action. Therefore, KGWU could push through only a part of the demands, excluding demands for higher wages. KGWU’s experiences, therefore, indicate that past studies stressing exclusively the enabling aspects of the emergence of large tier one suppliers for unions’ collective bargaining strategies might have been overly optimistic (cf. Kumar 2019b).

With regard to interactions and relations with external actors in spaces of collaboration, KGWU’s case shows that collaborations with other labour actors, which are characterised by balanced power relations and a shared strategic action frame can have enabling effects on unions’ capacities to build associational, organisational and workplace bargaining power. As opposed to collaborations with Northern NGOs or consumer networks that have been in the focus of previous studies (see e.g. Anner 2015; Fink 2014; Merk 2009), KGWU’s collaboration with the China Labour Bulletin illustrates a different type of transnational collaboration that is constructed primarily as a learning space, in which KGWU leaders, organisers and activists can develop strategic capacities. KGWU’s collaboration further illustrates that unions in garment producing countries may also construct transnational collaborations as South-South co-operations—as opposed to the predominant focus in past studies on North–South labour-consumer co-operations in the garment GPN (see e.g. Hauf 2017; Zajak et al. 2017).

Lastly, with regard to the practices and interactions with employers, brands and allies in spaces of contestation, KGWU’s struggle at Shahi 8-has once more highlighted that when spaces of contestation are constructed primarily outside of the workplace, and without the active participation of workers, victories in a specific labour struggle may not easily be translated into workplace bargaining power. In the case of KGWU’s struggle for collective bargaining at Shahi 8, after almost three months of public campaigning that did not involve workers in the factory, KGWU leaders and organisers had to start building the membership in the factory almost from scratch again. Therefore, despite the memorandum of understanding granting KGWU the rights to collective organisation and bargaining, the union could not use these rights immediately. Hence, KGWU’s experience highlights the importance of constructing spaces of collaboration through networked relationships that also involve workers. Only under these circumstances do workers get a chance to have first-hand experiences of collective action and strengthen their collective mind-set and strategic capacities—both central conditions for building unions’ associational and organisational power resources and thereby unions’ bargaining power vis-à-vis employers (cf. Lévesque and Murray 2010).

The following section summarises and synthesises the central findings and lessons from the case studies of all three Bangalore garment unions.

4 Interim Conclusion: Networked Labour Agency and Lessons for Building Sustained Union Power ‘at the Bottom’ of GPN

In this chapter, I have analysed the agency strategies of three local garment unions that are active in the Bangalore export-garment cluster: the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), the Garment Labour Union (GLU) and the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KGWU). Specifically, I have examined the extent to which the agency strategy followed by each union enabled unions to build sustained bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and thereby achieve lasting improvements for workers. To this end, I have conceptualised unions’ agency strategies as emerging at the intersection of three spaces of labour agency constituted through intertwining sets of practices and relationships: (1) spaces of organising constituted through unions’ practices of building relationships with workers as (potential) union members; (2) spaces of collaboration constituted through unions’ practices of constructing solidary or collaborative relationships with external organisations such as other unions, NGOs or consumer organisations; and (3) spaces of contestation constructed by unions around specific labour struggles through practices of targeting employers and lead firms on the one hand, and through strategically activating coalitional power resources from external actors on the other hand.

Based on the empirical analysis, I propose that we can distinguish between two basic strategic approaches, which can be observed as part of the three case study unions’ historical evolution: (1) a strategic approach combining practices of organising workers at the community level, of collaborating with international donor NGOs and consumer networks, and of tackling basic labour rights violations; and (2) a strategic approach combining practices of organising workers in selected target factories, of maintaining solidary relations with international labour organisations and networks, and of negotiating collective bargaining agreements with employers.

The first strategic approach, which I call the community organising, fire-fighting approach, has been prevalent among all three garment unions in the first decade of union agency in the Bangalore export-garment cluster from 2005 until 2015: Given that 85% of workers in the Bangalore export-garment industry are women and first-time industrial workers, in their early years, the main aim of unions was to familiarise workers with the concepts of unionisation and collective action and to win workers trust. To this end, unions constructed spaces of organising primarily through community organising practices that addressed garment workers not only in their identities as wage labourers but also in their identities as women, mothers, wives and community members. In this line, not the factory but the community represented the central physical space of organising. Community organising practices were linked to workplace action mainly through full-time union organisers’ practices of taking up individual workers’ grievances and intervening with the management.

Consequently, spaces of contestation were constructed by unions in their early years, mainly around individual labour rights violations. Given the lack of a strong membership base inside the factory, full-time union organisers relied primarily on interventions by state authorities to pressure management into taking corrective action. Hence, constructing and maintaining relationships with international consumer networks were central practices of constructing spaces of collaboration under the community organising, fire-fighting approach. In addition, unions relied on maintaining close collaborations with local and international NGOs to acquire financial resources through funded projects, allowing unions to pay for organisers’ salaries, office spaces and community organising activities.

Under the community organising, fire-fighting approach, all three local garment unions achieved essential improvements for workers by stopping various large-scale labour rights violations, such as non-payment of minimum wages. These improvements in working conditions were also facilitated by the consolidation of the garment industry after the end of the quota regime in 2005. As a result, many smaller factories closed, and production was increasingly concentrated in larger, tier one supplier factories integrated into brands’ social auditing regimes. Nevertheless, workers’ reality was still characterised by below-subsistence wages, high work pressure and abusive behaviour by supervisors. At the same time, unions found that with a community organising, fire-fighting strategic approach, they could not gain concessions concerning wages or other benefits that would incur additional costs on employers. Due to the focus on community organising, union members were distributed over a large number of factories. As a result, unions were not able to deploy industrial action to pressure employers into collective bargaining and thereby achieve improvements for workers beyond minimum labour standards.

Against this background, over the past five to seven years, all unions have undergone a strategic reorientation process that involved implementing elements of a second strategic agency approach that I call the strategic factory organising, collective bargaining approach. Under this approach, unions have started to shift their organising activities from the community to the factory as the primary physical space for organising. Unions now construct spaces of organising through practices of selecting target factories, forming factory committees and training workers leaders, who should then lead the organising and collective bargaining process in the respective factories. For at least two of the three unions, KGWU and GATWU, restructuring spaces of organising was linked also to restructuring the practices through which they construct spaces of collaboration. Instead of investing time and personnel resources into maintaining relations with donor NGOs from the Global North and with consumer organisations, these two unions now concentrate on building collaborations with international labour organisations and networks.

This shift was also motivated by the GATWU’s and KGWU’s realisation that maintaining close collaborations with international donor NGOs and campaigning networks constrained their capacities for building a strong union base on the ground. In the context of these collaborations, significant time and personnel resources were spent on performing research and documentation activities for funders—resources that could, in turn, not be invested in organising activities. Against this background, both GATWU and KGWU started constructing spaces of collaboration through building close relationships with labour organisations and networks that focussed on joint strategy development. Hence, the types of coalitional power resources that GATWU and KGWU sought to build and access through these collaborations were not financial resources and ‘borrowed’ moral power, but rather strategic knowledge and solidarity based on shared experiences.

The strategic knowledge and capacities developed through collaborations with international labour organisations and networks enabled GATWU and KGWU to construct spaces of contestation that allowed the unions to advance collective bargaining processes in target factories. KGWU and GATWU now limit the deployment of networked agency strategies involving consumer organisations and brands to labour rights violations linked to workplace organising and collective bargaining campaigns in specific factories.

Following this strategic organising, collective bargaining approach, GATWU achieved to sign a collective bargaining agreement with the Avery Dennison management for workers at the company’s Bangalore plant—the first collective bargaining agreement signed by a local garment union in India. KGWU signed a memorandum of understanding with India’s largest garment export company, Shahi Exports. In this memorandum, the management officially commits to respecting workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining at its Bangalore-based plant Shahi 8.

Albeit generally, a strategic shift from the community organising, fire-fighting approach to a factory organising, collective bargaining approach can be observed among Bangalore export-garment unions, this shift has also been characterised by various tensions. These tensions can be observed most strikingly in GLU’s practices, which show the strongest path dependency on the community organising, fire-fighting approach. On the one hand, GLU has introduced elements of a strategic factory organising approach into their practices of constructing spaces of organising by selecting four target factories and trying to establish factory union committees in these factories. On the other hand, GLU continues to invest significant personnel and time resources into community or area-based organising practices, such as providing family and psychological counselling and gathering workers from large numbers of factories in junction meetings. Target factory committee members are recruited through these practices. As a result, GLU organisers find it difficult to recruit a stable group of workers from each target factory for committee meetings. GLU’s strategic focus on community and area-based organising practices, in turn, needs to be understood as inextricably linked to GLU’s continued practices of constructing spaces of collaboration around funded projects with international NGOs. However, the institutional logic of these funded project collaborations focused on maximising outreach through loose ties with workers clashes with the institutional logic of a strategic factory organising approach. The latter, in contrast, requires unions to focus resources on building strong, long-term ties with selected groups of workers. As a result of these tensions, GLU’s practices of constructing spaces of organising also remain rooted predominantly in the fire-fighting approach. As a result, by the time the research was conducted, GLU had not yet achieved the necessary membership strength in any factory for engaging in collective bargaining with employers.

Tensions between a strategic factory organising, collective bargaining approach and practices of fire-fighting are present in the agency approaches of GATWU and KGWU as well. GATWU’s most significant challenge lies in working with limited financial and personnel resources after ending collaborations with international NGOs for funded projects. Whereas ending these collaborations has enabled GATWU to concentrate all their resources on organising work, the fact that GATWU has no more full-time, paid organisers also limits the unions’ abilities to conduct several struggles at the same time. During the extended struggle at Avery Dennison, which went on for almost two and a half years, union leaders’ resources were bound, and collective bargaining processes in other factories were put on hold. At the same time, worker leaders have taken on a more active role in negotiating workers’ everyday grievances and problems with management independently.

In the case of KGWU, tensions in shifting from a community organising approach to a strategic-factory organising, collective bargaining approach were, in turn, manifested in the unions’ difficulties to organise a majority of workers in the Shahi 8 factory despite employing strategic factory-centred organising practices. Even though KGWU organisers employed a snowballing organising model to systematically organise workers from different departments at Shahi 8, training sessions and discussions with these workers took place outside of the factory due to a prevalent anti-union climate inside the factory. For the same reason, during the struggle for collective bargaining at Shahi 8, KGWU was not able to mobilise workplace protests and instead had to rely on leveraging institutional power and moral power resources by filing complaints at the police and the labour department and through conducting public ‘naming and shaming’ campaigns with support from the China Labour Bulletin and the Worker Rights Consortium. Nevertheless, with the signing of the memorandum of understanding, KGWU has achieved to open the factory as a safe space for organising and can now continue their organising activities inside the factory. KGWU’s experiences show that the shift from a community organising, fire-fighting approach to a strategic factory organising collective bargaining approach needs to be understood as a long-term process rather than as a radical break.

In summary, which general lessons can we draw from the analyses of GATWU’s, GLU’s and KGWU’s agency strategies regarding the enabling conditions for building sustained union bargaining power in garment producing countries? I propose that we can draw three main lessons. First, the analysis has shown that the practices through which unions construct spaces of organising matter: Under repressive employer and state regimes, direct workplace organising may not always be an option. Moreover, especially in sectors with a high share of first-generation industrial and migrant workers, unions may need to win workers’ trust and familiarise workers with the concepts of collective organisation and unionisation. Hence, to get a foothold among workers, it can be beneficial for unions to develop organising strategies that address workers not primarily as wage labourers but rather as women or community members and that build on the collective experiences of workers in these contexts (cf. Jenkins 2013; Doutch 2021). At the same time, the analysis has shown that community organising approaches cannot replace but merely pave the way for more focused workplace organising strategies that actively seek to develop workers’ strategic capacities for collective action. In the end, to achieve concessions from employers, unions’ strongest leverage that unions have over employers is their associational power that can be deployed for industrial action at the workplace (cf. Kumar 2019a).

Second, the analysis has shown that the types of collaborations that unions construct with external actors matter: Collaborations with external actors can enable unions to build associational and organisational power resources, but they can also constrain unions’ capacities to do so. As we have seen in the analysis, in particular relationships of local unions with international donor NGOs for funded project work can have a rather constraining effect with regard to building unions’ associational and organisational power resources when asymmetrical power relations characterise these relations. Asymmetric power relations are present when central planning and decision-making capacities are centralised with NGOs, while local unions depend on funding from these NGOs for daily organising activities. In these cases, union leaders and full-time organisers are accountable primarily to NGOs as funders instead of being primarily accountable to the union’s members. This external accountability, in turn, poses constraints for building participatory and democratic union relations, which are, however, crucial for building organisational and associational power resources (see Lévesque and Murray 2010). Moreover, when unions depend on financial resources tied to specific projects led by international NGOs, the project framework will likely shape the practices through which unions construct relationships with workers. Since NGO-funded projects tend to rely on an institutional logic of maximising outreach, unions are required to maximise the number of worker engagements, e.g. through training or counselling activities. However, this requirement contrasts with unions’ need to build closer ties with smaller groups of workers who can then act as worker leaders in their respective factories. Therefore, to ensure that collaborations with external actors strengthen unions’ associational and organisational power, local unions must retain strategic decision-making competences. In this regard, collaborations with other labour organisations and unions can be particularly fruitful since, in these collaborations, unions are more likely to develop strategic capacities (see also Fütterer and López Ayala 2018).

Third, the analysis has also shown that how unions construct spaces of contestation matters: when unions construct spaces of contestation primarily as network spaces that are detached from workers’ territorially embedded everyday spaces, workers have little opportunity to be part of the struggle and hence to develop strategic capacities and to make first-hand experiences of collective organisation. This is the case, for example, when unions rely on filing complaints with state authorities and transnational consumer campaigns as primary power resources in a struggle. Whereas unions often use such an approach to constructing spaces of contestation to compensate for low associational and organisational power resources, exclusively relying on institutional and moral power resources does little to help unions to build the power resources they are lacking.

To build unions’ associational and organisational power resources it is therefore of strategic importance for unions to involve workers into spaces of contestation, if not through industrial action, then through other forms of symbolic collective action. On the other hand, the analysis has shown that transnational consumer campaigns can have enabling effects for building sustained local union bargaining power when unions deploy them as secondary power resources to support struggles for collective organisation and bargaining (see also Kumar 2014). In these cases, moral power resources leveraged through public campaigns can reinforce and strengthen local unions’ organising and union-building efforts and thereby help to shift the capital labour-power balance in favour of workers.

The next chapter concludes this study with a summary of the most important empirical results and this study’s empirical and theoretical contributions.