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Organizing unions in export factories

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 3: Organizing to improve worker health > Organizing unions in export factories

When organized in unions, workers have safer workplaces, better working conditions, higher pay, and more power on the job. It is legal to organize unions in most countries, but sometimes in special export processing zones union organizing is illegal. Even where it is legal, government officials may not be willing or able to enforce labor laws and protect workers who are organizing. And when workers do succeed in forming a union, sometimes the employer refuses to recognize it or to negotiate a contract.

These are difficult conditions for organizing, but democratic, honest unions are still the best solution workers have found to improve their work and their lives. As workers gain more experience in organizing changes in the workplace, their unionizing campaigns tend to be more successful. As in struggles for health and safety, the key to effective organizing is listening to what your co-workers want to see changed, and encouraging their participation in making that change happen. Each organizing victory inspires the next campaign in your factory or a factory down the road or across the ocean.

Forming a union despite company opposition

Workers at the Yoo Yang garment factory in Honduras were tired of harassment, low pay, and bad working conditions. They decided to form a union, inspired by workers in a factory nearby who won the struggle to have their union recognized. For a year, the workers pushed for recognition from the government and a contract with the factory. They pressured their boss to listen to them through creative actions such as boycotting the cafeteria and taping blue solidarity ribbons on all their machines. After lunch, they marched back into the factory together. They held 5-minute work stoppages.

The workers were harassed. Some were fired illegally and the factory threatened to close, but the union stayed strong and won a contract. The owners agreed to pay higher wages, increase benefits, and meet with a workers’ health and safety committee every month. It was a big win. Then the union began supporting workers in another Yoo Yang-owned factory who formed a union. They too were working to gain recognition, win a contract, and to stop the intimidation of union supporters. When workers from the 2 factories got together to share their experiences, it helped a lot.

Wgthas black-un.png The right to organize and form a union Wgthas black-ilo.png

The ILO Core Labor Standards are considered to establish fundamental labor rights internationally. They include the Elimination of Forced Labor, the Abolition of Child Labor, the Elimination of Discrimination in the Workplace, and the Right to Organise and Form Unions. These conventions specifically address the right to organise unions:

The ILO Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (No. 87) says:

  • Workers and employers have a right to organize and join organizations.
  • Workers’ and employers’ organizations have a right to draft their own constitutions and rules, elect representatives in full freedom, and organize activities and programs.
  • The government should not prevent workers from exercising their right to organize.
  • Workers’ and employers’ organizations have a right to join federations and confederations, as well as to affiliate with international organizations.
  • Workers’ and employers’ organizations should be protected from suspension or dissolution.

The ILO Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (No. 98) protects against acts of anti-union discrimination in employment. Workers are protected from:

  • employment conditions that force workers to give up union membership or that prohibit them from joining a union.
  • dismissal due to union membership or participation in union activities.

The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers' rights are explained in Appendix A.
A union struggles to raise health issues

From its very beginnings, the electronics industry has tried to stop workers from organizing. The industry saw demands for fair wages, good working conditions, and safe workplaces as a challenge to their control and to their profits. They claim, "Remaining non-union is essential to the survival of our companies."

a sign on a wall.
If you have no union, you are not allowed to have one. If you have a union, it is not allowed to be effective.

But inside the Special Economic Zone in Southern Luzon, the Philippines, the NXP Workers’ Union has been organizing workers for more than 20 years. Management has fired union leaders and clamped down on workers who fought for better wages and hours. By promoting union democracy and continuing their union-building efforts, NXP has remained strong in the face of these attacks and won many campaigns.

a man speaking.
When life is so hard, it’s difficult to convince workers that their health is the most important thing. More important than money.

While wages and conditions have improved, occupational safety and health has not. Many workers still believe electronic companies are safe places to work. Although NXP has carried out research to understand which workers are getting sick and why, safer and healthier work at NXP is still a challenge. The company still uses banned and dangerous chemicals, such as tetrachloroethylene (PERC) and trichloroethylene (TCE). Many workers suffer from hearing loss, but the NXP cannot get the company to reduce noise levels by installing quieter machines. Although the union tries to motivate workers to become active around occupational health, not enough workers respond.

But the NXP union is nothing if not stubborn. The union leadership was arrested and fired for protesting factory conditions. With strong support from the union members, after 5 months most got their jobs back, and their demands were accepted by the company. Now the leadership is trying to convince the workers to struggle just as hard for health and safety.