Inside the campaign: Using a global framework agreement to organise H&M workers

She was a young organiser faced with a challenge — to help workers at global fashion giant H&M form a union.

In 2016, the Swedish multi-national chain was opening its first store in New Zealand, and Sarah Thompson was hired by First Union to lead the organizing effort there.

From her previous work with Auckland Action Against Poverty, Sarah had worked with unions, but this was her first fully-fledged organizing push.

“I hoped that because I was roughly their age, a woman, and shared their love of fashion, the workers would be able to identify with me,” explains Sarah.

However, it would be hard to connect with H&M workers if she wasn’t able to contact them. This is where the global agreement between the company and UNI came in.

Sarah learned through her colleagues at First Union that H&M signed a global pact with UNI to “respect fundamental human rights, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining . . . in all H&M workplaces.”

The agreement could help her gain access — in the workplace — to H&M employees, and explain the benefits of organizing.

Sarah Thompson led the union organizing campaign at H&M in New Zealand.

“At first, local management was resistant, and didn’t even know the agreement existed. But thanks to the established relationship between UNI and H&M headquarters, global HR managers quickly intervened and made it clear that the agreement must be respected,” she says.

This paved the way for establishing contact between First Union and H&M workers in New Zealand. Upon the opening of the first New Zealand store in October 2016, the union already had a meeting with the company.

Two First Union organizers were allowed to speak to workers, and unlike many other union organizing campaigns, the company was actually helpful in facilitating access. Management even gave organizers the best hours to meet workers, they made a room available for meetings, and introduced the union to the staff.

“The workers were all young and most had never been a member of a union before,” points out Sarah. “But they were immediately excited to join. Some had more experience in retail than others, but it really doesn’t take long in this industry to realize that protections are needed.”

Workers pointed out a multitude of issues they encountered on the job: problems with rosters, not enough prior notice for shift scheduling, and access to water while working were some of the biggest.

By December 2016, 80 percent of the staff at H&M’s first New Zealand store had signed up to be members, and Sarah and First Union began contract negotiations with the company.

In the process, the union was able to win a national agreement that would cover all future stores. Workers secured a significant increase in the starting wage from $16 to $17, and scrapped the 90-day probation period.

“Obviously, there were bumps on the road,” says Sarah in acknowledgement. “But, the workers stayed together, and we made sure that the company was acting in good faith. Now, we’re already focusing on our next challenge.”

The Company now has three stores in Nz with more planned to open in 2018, and the organizing efforts will continue.

According to Sarah, the global agreement is useful for more than just organizing — if challenges like redundancies or restructuring occur, the GFA provides some sort of security.

Sarah recognizes that the agreement won’t magically fix all the problems they face, but it does provide a foundation for unions and the company to engage in a constructive dialogue on both a local and global level.

“I am grateful for my first experience in a global trade union alliance,” continues Sarah. “It’s powerful to see that our union is a member of this family. We’re able to look ahead and proactively agree on measures to keep conflicts from arising.”

H&M in New Zealand is a perfect demonstration of how constructive labor relations and a global agreement can help build a constructive dialogue in countries where the company is expanding its business.

The challenge ahead is to support unions in established markets who are dealing with some big issues facing H&M workers.

UNI Commerce, the retail division of our global union, will work with H&M’s global management to address those changes in a spirit of cooperation and transparency.

This is made possible by the global framework agreement with H&M.

Sarah and the new First Union members in New Zealand are proof of that.

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UNI Global Union

UNI Global Union, based in Nyon, Switzerland, represents more than 20 million workers in the fastest growing sectors in the world — skills and services.