Supporting labour rights in Indonesia’s sportswear factories (Nike, Adidas etc). Draft case study for your comments

May 20, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I’d like to continue picking your brains on the drafts of a series of case studies I’ve been working on. Next up is some long term advocacy on labour rights in Indonesia. Here’s the full draft case study for your comment (PC case study Indonesia Labour Rights Project May 2014).

From 1997-2013 Oxfam Australia’s Indonesian labour rights project (ILRP) worked to help achieve “sustainable livelihoods for workers” in factories in Indonesia that form part of global supply chains for major sportswear brands. As a result of sustained campaigns, the world’s largest sportswear brands, such as Nike and Adidas now take workers’ rights more seriously than a great majority of other transnational companies, including smaller sportswear companies.

What Happened? The ILRP used a combination of country-level capacity building and convening/brokering conversations between supplier INDONESIA_-_may_day_okcompanies, workers and others to build trust and find collective solutions. In addition, the ILRP also provided international campaign support when unions were experiencing harassment (dismissal, suspension) by factory management and the unions had exhausted internal remediation efforts.

Results and outcomes: Within Indonesia, the campaign led to the agreement of an industry-wide Protocol on Freedom of Association signed in June 2011. By September 2013, the total number of adidas, Nike, New Balance, Puma, Asics and Pentlands’ suppliers had reached 71 signatories and the number of workers covered exceeded 700,000.

Within the protocol there are some specific wins for worker organisations, including Union officials getting time off for union work, being allowed to collect dues and to give information to members. More fundamentally, the Protocol is an acceptance of the legitimacy of unions, their right to represent workers, and their right to negotiate on their behalf, clear advances over many global codes of conduct.

What is not made explicit in the protocol but has happened as a side effect, is the improvement in communication between the brands and the unions, which in the past had been very tense and is now more constructive. Some of the most significant impacts were on gender relations and the roles of women within the labour movement.

Globally, the Indonesia work played an important part in broader progress, eg Nike’s decision in 2011 to change its manufacturing processes with reduced exposure to toxins (toluene). Or the 2012 decision by Nike and Adidas to limit use of short-term contracts.

Power Analysis: The principal power relations can be summarised as


The economic power of brands over suppliers and supplier companies over workers. Buying companies put pressure on their suppliers, who in turn put pressure on their workforce, resulting in widespread labour rights violations and undermining the effectiveness of codes of conduct and the application of national and international laws and standards.

In Indonesia, the social power of men over women (including within the trade union movement and frequent sexual harassment by male supervisors of female workers).

Parts of the trade union movement suffer from the legacy of the Suharto era in Indonesia, notably in the form of corporatist trade unions aligned to particular political interests rather than those of their members. Some unions continue to actively cooperate with factory managers to suppress worker activism.

Drivers/sources of power working in favour of the ILRP objective:

The power of consumers and active citizens in Australia and other richer countries. Companies do not want to risk the reputation of their brand.

A growing women’s movement in Indonesia.

An active (albeit fragmented) trade union movement emerging after the fall of Suharto in 1998. Garment and footwear unions have successfully come together in recent years.

An organised and motivated international movement and network of activist groups like the Play Fair Alliance.

Indonesia trainer factoryChange Hypothesis: Oxfam’s hypothesis was that empowerment of workers, particularly women, requires the removal of impediments that prevent individuals from acting. These include personal factors that deter activism, such as the need to work long hours to make more money, fear of harassment and lack of knowledge of their rights. Obstacles also include weak enforcement of legal requirements by both company and public officials.

Change Strategy: The change strategy seeks enforcement of existing laws and conventions (ILO and Ruggie Principles) rather than changes to the law, which is understood to be the role of Indonesian civil society and not the place of Oxfam. It combined four components:

Promoting Corporate Accountability:

  • Facilitating constructive dialogue between the private sector and worker organizations
  • Educating and influencing the private sector, including direct engagement (providing resources to the private sector such as the decent work protocol film and the ‘Checking up on Labour Rights’ publication);
  • Influencing the broader corporate accountability debate through research and discussion.

Strengthening Workplace Rights within company Supply Chains

  • Facilitating dialogue between workers and international sportswear company representatives
  • Building worker capacity to understand international supply chains and available redress mechanisms (training on how to research companies, understand codes of conduct etc.)
  • Supporting specific factory campaigns when unions faced discrimination/dismissals and wanted international campaign support.

Active citizenship: Engaging Citizens to Help Influence Change and Promote Labour Rights

  • Engaging and informing citizens/consumers/investors to urge companies to uphold workers’ rights.

Gender Justice and Empowerment

  • Gender and leadership training for worker organizations, particularly women workers;
  • Embedding gender justice in labour rights work, for example insisting on women worker participation in decent work dialogues and corporate accountability training and highlighting gender issues as a major component of responsible supply chain practice.

Huge staff commitment was regularly required to help those in the negotiations overcome moments of doubt and crisis, when the entire process ground to a halt, amid acrimony and threats of walk-outs. Some of the causes for disagreement were cultural, eg the brands’ failure to understand the symbolic significance to the trade unions of physically signing the Protocol document when it was finalised. Cultural translation and diplomacy were required in both directions – with the brands and (via some particularly dedicated national staff) with the unions, in a constant effort to maintain relationships, repair damage and get people back in the room.

One unexpected side effect of the ILRP was to improve trust and collaboration between different Indonesian trade unions, (as part of the legacy of corporatism under Suharto, a newly independent union movement includes at least 5 separate independent unions working in the garment sector).

Wider lessons: One important lesson is the need for stamina, long term relationship building, problem solving and long-term commitment. More than a decade of consistent campaign pressure created the environment in which sportswear brands were prepared to sit down and negotiate the FOA Protocol. Such commitment is hard to achieve in an aid business based on multi-year programme cycles, and constant financial pressures.

A further lesson of working in such multi-stakeholder initiatives is that individuals matter, as do corporate structures.Indonesia labour protest

Conclusions: The ILRP is an example not just of active citizenship, but of leverage, through a combination of Australian and international consumer pressure on sportswear companies, playing a supportive role in national level talks and supporting individual workplace campaigns.

Its judicious and careful combination of capacity building, brokering conversations and relationships (which turned into negotiations) between workers, suppliers and brands, and international campaigns, enabled the ILRP to have an impact disproportionate to its size.

Such work was enormously demanding, requiring dedicated, talented staff able to network with a wide range of players, see events through the eyes of both workers and companies, and build trust between all sides.

Previous case studies: civilian protection in the DRC

May 20, 2014
Duncan Green