Neil Kearney, the general secretary of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers' Federation, the main global apparel workers' union, died unexpectedly today in Bangladesh at age 59.
This news came as a very sad shock. Serving in the general secretary role for 21 years, Neil had been at the center of the fight for the dignified treatment of the millions of workers in his industry. He was at the forefront of the often-contentious battle for the rights of workers, many of them young women, who make the clothes we all wear. His service spanned the entire history of the code of conduct era, and his role in that history was huge.
We all thought that Neil was indefatigable. But he was, like all of us, very human, and his life ended too soon. It is fitting—and rather poignant—that he died in Bangladesh, a country about which he cared a great deal, and a country where many workers relied on his efforts.
Many BSR member companies will remember Neil as a staunch defender of workers’ rights, and someone who challenged them frequently.
My most enduring memory of Neil is unrelated to his work. He and I waited for a flight in the Portland, Oregon, airport, after a Nike stakeholder engagement in 2004. Over a beer, he related his belief that he had just become the first trade union official to enter the Nike campus. He said it with a twinkle in his eye. He went on to tell a lot of stories, and while I don’t remember the particulars, I do remember that they were all hilarious, and that he took great pleasure in a good laugh.
We have lost someone who was a critical part of the fabric of our work. Someone who made a great difference, and who will be seriously missed.