The rights of workers in clothing factories in India, Bangladesh and other countries in southern and south-east Asia have got worse since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

A survey by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre found that nearly two thirds (61%) of respondents reported the situation for freedom of association and collective bargaining had worsened.

Almost half (48%) revealed an increase in discrimination, intimidation, threats and harassment of trade union members.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre interviewed 24 trade union leaders and surveyed 124 union activists and labour advocates in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka where manufacturers supply many of the garments sold and decorated in the UK.

The report revealed allegations of union-busting and related abuse at 13 factories. It added that these factories supply, or have recently supplied, at least 15 global fashion brands and retailers.

The report outlined how union leaders continued to face discrimination, threats, violence, false charges and arrests, with factory owners persistently using Covid-19 as a pretext for these attacks and other attempts to suppress organising efforts and suspend collective bargaining agreements.

It added that suppression of trade union rights that spiked in the early days of the pandemic had become the norm, with devastating impacts for garment workers.

“Without a collective voice and protection, women workers face declining wages, more precarious work, longer hours, and abuse and harassment on the factory floor,” the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre concluded.

“These findings demonstrate the need for governments, brands and suppliers to take action to ensure the right to freedom of association is protected across supply chains.

“They clearly show the need for due diligence beyond social auditing, proactive brand engagement with suppliers in order to protect freedom of association, and the introduction of mandatory human rights due diligence frameworks.

“Brands and suppliers are encouraged to enter good-faith dialogue with workers and their representatives through collective bargaining and binding agreements between key stakeholders.”

Jay Kerr, from anti-sweatshop campaign No Sweat and its wholesale ethical clothing not-for-profit company, commented: “This is an incredibly important report that provides evidence of moves to crack down on trade union strength under the guise of pandemic recovery.

“If there is to be meaningful change to working conditions in the garment industry, then we need strong unions to make that happen.”

Click here for the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s report, titled Unpicked: Fashion & Freedom of Association.