Picket line at the H&M warehouse

‘They’re looking at us as if we are animals in a zoo and make us feel like slaves.

Door Redactie 22 maart 2022

You do not need to travel to Bangladesh to encounter harassment, unsafe working conditions, and a fundamental disrespect for workers’ rights in the fashion chain. It is happening right here at H&M’s warehouse in the Dutch city of Tilburg, where operations have been sub-contracted to GXO Logistics.

A group of people are standing in front of the H&M warehouse

Two hundred workers getting organised

Last week, about 200 migrant workers turned their backs on the unsafe working conditions in a Tilburg-based H&M warehouse.  A group of mainly Eastern European workers gathered in front of the warehouse to discuss issues such as intimidation, unsafe working conditions, and the fundamental disrespect for workers, which they encountered on a daily basis. 

Fire in the warehouse

Since last week, there has been a ban on bringing mobile phones to the workplace,  which has caused a great deal of unrest and anxiety among workers.  In particular because this was a management decision in the aftermath of a fire in the warehouse a few weeks ago.  After workers had informed their managers about unsafe working conditions, doing their job while standing in fire-extinguishing water with electrical wires lying around the warehouse, they were harassed, forced back to work, and threatened with dismissal or other ‘consequences’ if they did not continue doing their job.  Several workers took pictures and filmed the unsafe situation with their mobile phones.  GXO evidently did not take the workers’ safety seriously, however, but worried more about these unsafe working conditions being exposed.  The workers themselves alerted the Dutch Labour Inspectorate [Nederlandse Arbeidsinspectie],  which in turn forwarded the photos to GXO management, who subsequently banned workers from bringing their mobile phones to the workplace.

Dialogue with GXO

In the days prior to the picket line, workers formed a trade union delegation to share their concerns, and to discuss with the warehouse management the safety issues and the ban on phones.  The management did not share the workers’ concerns regarding unsafe working conditions and harassment in the workplace.  They even suggested that ‘individual migrant workers should complain more loudly to their team leaders or raise the matter with confidential counsellors’. The trade union delegation suggested allowing mobile phones on the work floor for the time being, and in the meantime addressing the structural safety issues.  However, generally the union observed that management focuses on top-down decisions, whereas the consequences for workers and their safety should be the starting point for structural solutions.

Internal company regulations and operational safety checks

GXO refers to internal company regulations to legitimise its ban on mobile phones in the workplace.  However, these regulations are often communicated in a language that workers do not understand, or are not widely known among the workforce, and are also not adequately explained.

Moreover, GXO structurally violates its own company regulations by carrying our security checks on their workers.  Company regulations state that security checks may be carried out only in specific individual cases if specific suspicions of circumstances warrant this,  and can only take place under the supervision of and in the presence of the highest-ranking GXO staff member available.  However, in the past, security checks were carried out on all workers, without GXO staff ever being present.  GXO has fully outsourced the security checks on workers to an external security company.  Workers stated that they feel looked upon as criminals on the work floor: ‘They’re looking at us as if we are animals in a zoo’.

Stolen mobile phones: GXO waives liability

Workers feel criminalised by GXO because of the constant surveillance.  However, company management claims that GXO cannot be held responsible for workers’ personal belongings being stolen from company lockers that they are obliged to use.

Internal company regulations allows for exemptions

Several workers have asked for permission to take their phone to the workplace owing to personal circumstances, referring to GXO company regulations for approval.  Some workers have relatives in the war zone in Ukraine, and fear that every call might be the last one.  Others are dealing with urgent medical situations at home, and are very anxious if they cannot be reached.  Despite the exemptions provided for in the internal company regulations, managers have refused any exemptions, despite these distressing circumstances.

Workers feel unsafe and they need to have their phones

The situation is very clear to the warehouse staff:  namely, workers’ safety is not GXO’s primary concern. The company simply does not want workers to bring phones into the workplace, for fear of them being used to record unsafe working conditions.

9 March 2022: H&M warehouse workers: ‘GXO is not a safe place; they don’t want us to take pictures of unsafe situations.’

Workers emphasised that they do not even consider bringing their phones to the work floor for social media or relaxation purposes.  The extremely high work targets that employees are required to meet, which already cause a great deal of stress, leave little or no time for anything else.  Workers simply want to keep their phones with them to protect the devices from being stolen, and so that family members can reach them in case of an emergency.

At the picket line

A few minutes before the picket line started, company management informed the workers that a temporary relaxation of the rules for mobile phones in the workplace would be granted in individual cases.  However, they failed to come up with clear and transparent procedures.

During the industrial action, a trade union delegation tried to keep the dialogue with management open. Several meetings took place, but unfortunately without any clear result.  GXO qualified the workers’ proposed solution to temporarily allow phones on the work floor and, at the same time, to protect employees’ personal belongings against theft, as being unreasonable and unfair demands.

H&M’s position

In 2021, several issues involving the H&M warehouse in Tilburg were brought to the attention of H&M, referring to the company’s own standards relating to safe and fair working conditions for migrant workers in the H&M supply chain.  In addition, the FNV also shared with H&M the workers’ statements relating to H&M’s audits.  GXO had instructed its workers to pretend they did not speak English, and not to talk about working conditions and work targets when H&M carried out audits.  The trade union insights did not lead to H&M considering the FNV as a coalition partner in resolving and preventing precarious working conditions in its supply chain.

This is how H&M responded in the media to concerns put forward by the picket line

‘We are aware of the situation in Tilburg, and hope the discussions will have a successful outcome.  GXO has an efficient system in place to address and resolve workers’ concerns.  We are all confident that the parties involved will do their utmost to have a fair, constructive, and respectful dialogue, and to resolve the issues.’

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