The remarkable revival of the Portuguese TCLF industries that followed its decline after Portugal joined the EU in 1986 was the subject of the European social partners’ online seminar.

Portugal has historically been an important producer in the textile, clothing, leather and footwear sectors, with a focus on leather for footwear. After 1986, these industries initially weakened, but made a robust recovery in the 21st century. Production increased for direct producers and suppliers to fashion brands.

Today, Portugal has a strong and international textile and clothing culture. The industry employs 138,000 workers in 11,900 companies, representing almost a fifth of total manufacturing employment. The multinational clothing company Inditex alone sources textiles from almost 1000 factories in Portugal that collectively employ 47,000 workers.

So what contributed to the success of the Portuguese TCLF industry? Why was the sector able to change its fortune? What can late accession countries and candidate countries learn from Portugal’s experience? To address these questions, industriAll Europe (in cooperation with IndustriALL Global Union) and the three European industry associations, EURATEX, COTANCE and CEC, invited stakeholders of the Portuguese TCLF sectors to an online meeting. The meeting provided an opportunity for research institutes, training centres, fashion brands, employer organisations and trade unions to share insights into different aspects of the TCLF industries.

The discussions led participants to agree on the main success factors of the TCLF sectors in Portugal: reliable social dialogue, a concerted long-term strategy backed by all stakeholders and cooperation with a committed government, have ensured the transition of the TCLF sectors into sustainable, competitive industries with decent wages, stable and healthy workplaces.

Braz Costa from CITEVE, a leading textile technology institute in Portugal, gave an overview of the TCLF industries in Portugal and their main success factors. He explained that the ability to quickly respond to market developments, a readiness to innovate and an early focus on clean technologies and digitalisation have contributed to establishing the North of Portugal as Europe’s largest textile producing region within the last 30 years. While employment figures have fallen, the quality of employment has increased. The majority of the sector’s workforce are well-educated workers.

Manuel Freitas, representing the FESETE trade union, underlined that government, employers and trade unions have agreed on the need to focus on quality, increasing added value of products and services, innovation, training, and improving salaries for the country to succeed on this path. A total of eight national collective agreements had been negotiated in the TCLF industry. These agreements have contributed positively to the image, growth and sustainability of the sector.

Luc Triangle, industriAll Europe General Secretary pointed out that countries with a well-developed social dialogue were better equipped to cope with crises and successfully steer through transitions. Lessons from the Portuguese experience are not just helpful for stakeholders in South Eastern Europe, but the Portuguese case has also shown that social dialogue is crucial for a competitive, sustainable European industry in transition.

The online seminar was part of the EU-funded project ‘Ensuring a sustainable future for the South East European Textiles, Clothing, Leather and Footwear Industries’. This project addresses the challenges faced by TCLF industries in South East Europe that employ around 500,000 workers. The industries face a variety of problems linked to the lack of government support, inadequate industrial policies, skills gaps and poor training policies, absence of collective bargaining, and a shrinking workforce as a result of low wages and poor working conditions.

Contact: Ildikó Krén (Strategic Organiser)