Friday, 27 November 2009

Neil Kearney: A Life on the Frontline


The sad, untimely death of Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the International Tailor, Leather & Garment Workers' Union, is being mourned right across the global labour movement.

I remember Neil in particular through my work as a young trade union studies tutor with what was then KFAT (now part of COMMUNITY) and of the work that he was spearheading challenging the use of child labourers in clothing manufacture in Bangladesh.

Indeed, his impact, particularly in Bangladesh, through the pioneering creation of international framework agreements (IFA) to create a minimum floor of labour standards, based on ILO core labur standards, has resulted in the national declaration of three days of mourning in Bangladesh in the clothing sector.

On the front page of the ITLGW web-site the dedication to Neil reads:

Neil died of a heart attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the early hours of Thursday November 19. He was 59.Neil was a brilliant and passionate defender of the rights of workers who was equally at home negotiating at the highest level or talking with workers on the factory floor. In his 21 years at the head of the ITGLWF, Neil brought tireless energy and commitment to his work. Despite the pressures he faced and the scope of the problems he tackled, his sense of humour was never far away. He was an inspiration to all who knew him. With Neil’s death we lose an excellent General Secretary, a loyal colleague and a good friend.At this very sad time the thoughts of the ITGLWF and its members are with Neil’s wife Jutta and his two daughters Nicole and Caroline.More details on the funeral and the upcoming World Congress will be circulated shortly.

For those who hadn't met Neil before there's a really good YouTube clip (one amongst a large number) that gives a really good portrayal of the person and of the values that drove him:

Neil will be greatly missed but at the same time he is someone who, working with grasroots trade union and political activists, will be remembered as central to the fight to place some of the most marginalised and exploited workers on the forefront of trade union campaigning and organising activity.

I am sure that Neil would have agreed with the famous last words words of Joe Hill who famously said before his death, 'don't mourn, organise!'.

Any comments/memories on the work of Neil that you are familiar with are welcome. Please do also add any comments/condolences to the ITLGW web-site (




Janetta said...

I too remember Neil from many of the campaigns he led on behalf of the ITLGW and in particular the time he took on a key leading role in the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI). His concern at the time was that as the ETI also included employers and had no statutory force it really needed to utilise its credibility to force members to put their money where their mouths where.

I know over time the his work on framework agreements came in for much criticism from trade unionists but I remember wondering who else had had such a significant direct impact on workers lives. Neil was the global trade union leader for some of th emost dispossessed people on this planet and he never stopped understanding this in all of the work that he did. That he died - during yet another gruelling world tour - Bangladesh is fitting as so much of his passion centred on the mistreatment of workers in this country not only by MNCs but by its own government also.

Neil leaves a big legacy to fill, but set standards for us all to follow.

Janetta Sanchez

Ian Manborde said...

Hello Janetta,

Many thanks for your contribution - were you able to add something similar onto the ITLGW web-site?

I really can't add anything to what you say, but just reiterate that he has left a fantastic legacy and a great basis upon which we can carry on his work.



Alan said...


I haven't come across Neil before, sadly, but he clearly lived a life worth living and one, as you say, at the frontline of the most difficult type of union organising.

I sometime reflect on the relative ease of our union lives in the UK and feel that we need often to put our lives and experiences into the context of those who, like Bangladeshi child labourers, face a greater degree of threats - some of them literally life threatening.

I did a quick Google of Neil's name and saw quite quickly what kind of esteem he was held in across the movement.

It's a great testimony to him in a movement that is so cynical and introspective, that someone could draw out such a sense of loss.

As you say though, onward and organise.



Ian Manborde said...

Hello Alan,

Many thanks for the contribution. Hope things are good with you.

I'm not surprised of the commemorative statements you came across from your Google search given Neil's time in the movement and the extent of his reach across it.

And I agree that it's important to put our lives in the UK within a global context. We shouldn't underplay the challenges that face us here, but seen from a different (external) perspective, they are qualitatively different.

Although you may not have heard of Neil directly in all likelihood you have discussed some of the outcomes of his work and in particular I'm thinking about his work around international framework agreements and a number of the multinational companies that we've talked about in the past e.g. BMW, Danone, Ford where such agreements exist.

Please Google international framework agreements and see what turns up.

Look forward to meeting up again soon.



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