Workers are the best advocates of their own rights, if given the freedom to organise themselves. Many garment producing countries and factories however curtail workers’ freedom of association through restrictive laws or outright union-busting actions, thereby limiting workers’ ability to take collective action and negotiate better working conditions.

The problem

When apparel companies moved their production outside the countries where they were headquartered, they did so in search of the lowest wages, but also in pursuit of a more docile workforce. The garment industry moved into countries which restrict the right to organise and primarily hired workers who were considered to be less likely to speak up, such as (young) women, migrant workers, and workers on precarious contracts. Major garment producing countries, such as China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, The Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam belong to the worst countries for workers to organise in. They restrict this right out of fear of worker power or the wish to be as attractive to foreign investments as possible. The governments in these countries legally curtail the right for workers to form their own unions and crack down on strikes and other worker actions.

In other countries freedom of association and collective bargaining might be protected as a constitutional right, but some governments put unreasonable constraints on this right or allow employers to mock this right. This turns the undermining of workers rights into a way of attracting foreign investment. In Bangladesh, for example, prospective unions face high thresholds for registration and arbitrary denials, as well as violent repression against strikes. Furthermore, factory owners in Bangladesh and many other countries practice union-busting measures include firing union-leaders and striking workers, closing or relocating a factory to get rid of a union, and violence against union members.

- A union cultural event, India - 2009

Many union gatherings take place late at night after workers have finished their shifts. - A union meeting in Dahaka, Bangladesh - 2018

FOA quote

What we do

We see freedom of association as an enabling right that allows workers to stand up for themselves and fight for their own working conditions. We support workers in their struggle for their right to organise freely.

Workers experiencing union-busting can contact us through our urgent appeal system. We work with them, contacting apparel companies buying from the union-busting factory, to push them to make sure that fired union leaders are reinstated, legal charges against workers are dropped, or factories pay out compensation to affected workers.

When worker leaders were dismissed in Meridian Garment Industries Limited factory in Cambodia for example, we pushed the international buyers in the factory to use their leverage and eventually managed to secure that workers were reinstated and received back pay.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw an alarming rise in the number of union busting cases. We saw factories making garments for C&A, Zara, Mango and Bestseller forcing union members and workers in support of unions out of work. We pressured these brands to rectify the human rights issues in their supply chain through social media campaigns.

Furthermore, we try to structurally influence the situation for unions in repressive countries through create international attention and lobbying consumer country government to make trade agreements conditional on countries respecting the right to organise.


Freedom of association gives workers the right to form and join representative organisations of their own choosing in the workplace. Collective bargaining is the right of workers to join trade unions without fear of discrimination, to have their union recognised as the representative of its members, and to have this union negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment on their behalf. The right to organise with others to fight for better working conditions is a universal human right laid down in article 23 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in two of the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (no. 87 and 98).

Trade unions are crucial for ensuring that workers achieve a living wage and decent working conditions. They offer the most effective and legitimate way to establish a fair deal for workers, by allowing them to stand together to defend their rights. This collaborative voice allows workers to express their views, which they may be too intimidated to do alone. Only a small percentage of all garment workers are actually unionised, and many of these are in unions established by factory managements to please their clients (known as yellow unions).

Latest news on the right to organise

Results: 59 Items

  • June 26, 2024

    Clean Clothes Campaign calls upon ILO Better Work brands to ensure its critics will not be silenced

    Cambodian labour rights organisation Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) is under increasing threat since it released a research report on 4 June. The report focused on the effectiveness of processes in the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia (ILO-BFC) programme in which brands like H&M, Inditex, C&A, and Nike participate. It addresses specifically employer-imposed barriers to freedom of association. Though at times critical, the report is certainly not an attack against the BFC or the ILO but meant as a critical evaluation that can be used to improve the BFC’s mechanisms and processes.

  • June 21, 2024

    Clean Clothes Campaign strongly condemns the ongoing smear campaign against independent labour rights NGO in Cambodia

    The Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) recently published a report on Freedom of Association in the garment industry, and was confronted with a smear campaign and false accusations shortly after.

  • June 21, 2024

    Trail of broken promises: Levi’s denies justice to unlawfully fired workers in Türkiye

    After a serious instance of union busting at the Levi’s supply factory Özak Tekstil in Şanlıurfa, Türkiye, late in 2023, Levi’s made promises to uphold workers’ rights to freedom of association that the company failed to live up to in subsequent months. In response tonew research into the violations by the Worker Rights Consortium published earlier today, Clean Clothes Campaign renews its call on Levi’s to live up to its earlier promises and protect its workers’ right to organise freely.

  • April 24, 2024

    Remembering the Rana Plaza collapse

    Today, we commemorate that eleven years ago 1,138 people lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. Our thoughts are with the people who lost loved ones in this tragedy and with every worker who lived through it. We will keep on fighting side by side with garment workers' unions to make clear that workers’ lives are not a commodity and can not be treated as disposable.

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