Montreal - Dogged by allegations that it persecutes its workers who back labour unions in Canada and overseas, one of North America's largest shirt-makers is set to expand its Latin American and Caribbean workforce by 50 percent by 2008.
Montreal-based Gildan Activewear unveiled the plans at its annual shareholders meeting Wednesday, just days after agreeing to an independent audit of a Honduras plant where labour activists say more than 100 workers have been fired for unionising activities.
Outside the meeting at a downtown hotel here, about a dozen activists strung T-shirts with anti-Gildan slogans above sidewalks and propped placards in the snow.
They wanted to remind people that Gildan also mistreats workers in its Canadian plants, said Tess Tesalona of Montreal's Immigrant Workers Centre.
Gildan, a family firm that has grown phenomenally in the last decade to rival established manufacturers like Fruit of the Loom and Hanes, employs about 1,200 workers in Canada and 9,200 in factories that it either owns or contracts work to in Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Last year it closed one factory in Montreal, putting 147 workers on the streets.
While Gildan executives on Wednesday told IPS they support unions in their Canadian operations, Tesalona said two of the Montreal plants were already unionised when the company bought them, and that it fought hard against a union at the now closed factory.
"Within the process of getting certification, Gildan formed an anti-union committee. This committee terrorised the workers inside -- distributing petitions, blaming their (unionising) co-workers and all sorts of things."
"Even after the workers started signing (union) cards, once (the company) heard of it, the night shift was closed," she added.
When employees started organising at the plant in 1998, it employed 650 workers, she added. When it closed, their numbers had fallen to below 150.
"In the end, they managed to get union certification; they managed to have a collective agreement, but it was by then too weak because it was an enforced (agreement) so it ran for a year, and after that the anti-union workers organised for de-certification."
"One year after the union was de-certified, Gildan closed (that plant)."
Company executives told journalists Wednesday that it has no plans to further reduce its Montreal workforce, but by 2008 it plans to about double the number of overseas workers, primarily by opening new operations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The chairman of Gildan's board of directors, Greg Chamandy, said in the process the company, which makes 500 million shirts per year, would lift those workers from lives of agricultural toil, train them, and "help to create a middle-class for the first time in these countries".
"We don't think we're perfect (in employee relations) but our goal is to be on the cutting edge", he added.
Looking on at the annual meeting was Honduran Ambassador to Canada, Ana Carolina Galeano.
Labour activists say Gildan is making some right moves, slowly.
"We've made some progress in the sense that the company has agreed to participate in the Fair Labour Association audit," said Bob Jeffcott, policy analyst at the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN).
The association, or FLA, is a U.S.-based organisation that inspects conditions in overseas operations of multi-national manufacturers. Its members include brand-name companies like Nike and Liz Claiborne, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and universities in both Canada and the United States.
Gildan joined FLA as a "participating company" in October 2003, one month before one of Canada's largest pension plans, the union-owned Solidarity Labour Fund in Quebec province, announced it was withdrawing its 68-million-dollar (U.S.) investment in Gildan because of firings at the Honduras factory.
In December, the MSN, the Canadian Labour Congress (which represents 2.5 million workers) and the Federation of Honduran Workers (FITH) filed a complaint with the FLA about the firing of employees at Gildan's El Progreso plant in Honduras.
The three organisations filed a similar complaint Jan. 6 with another inspection organisation, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), formed by North American universities to ensure that the companies they purchase clothing from adhere to recognised labour standards.
The complaint alleges that on Oct. 20 last year, El Progreso management fired two workers, Santos Catalino Romero and Saul Bautista, who were leading a unionising drive at the plant. Another 37 workers were fired Nov. 4, including one who was six months pregnant, a move explicitly prohibited in Honduras' labour code.
"Since her firing, the pregnant worker has reportedly signed a letter of resignation and has received an additional sum of money," adds a summary of the complaint provided by MSN.
Jeffcott says the firings are only the latest at Gildan's Honduras factory. "A total of all of the firings of union supporters since November 2002 is over 100 right now ... so part of what our complaint suggested was that there is a pattern of violations of freedom of association," he said in an interview.
"What we're calling on Gildan to do is cooperate with both (inspection) processes fully, and then to correct problems that are identified by either or both of the processes and to work with both of them on what we call remediation," added Jeffcott.
Chamandy says the company's worker philosophy is simple: "the better your labour standards, the better your facilities, the more comfortable the people are -- the better productivity you're going to get. A happy worker is a good worker".
Tesalona says workers who left their countries to create better lives for their families in Canada were shocked at conditions here. "(They) told us that never in their wildest dreams before coming to work in Gildan did they think that something like what they experienced would happen to them".
"(The company is) saying this is part of being competitive, but for us it's just using people from the Third World as cheap labour ... for us, it is really important to point out what happened to workers here, because workers are workers (everywhere)."