Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation and a champion of workers’ rights, died of a heart attack Thursday in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He was 59.

This story first appeared in the November 20, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Kearney, who traveled to Bangladesh to pressure the government and private sector to improve working conditions in the garment industry, was a leader of the federation for 21 years.

“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,” said Manfred Schallmeyer, president of the federation. “Despite the pressures he faced and the scope of the problems he tackled, his sense of humor was never far away.”

Born in Donegal, Ireland, in 1950, Kearney immigrated to the U.K. at the age of 17. He served as an adviser to the U.K. Economic Development Committee for the Clothing Industry from 1975 to 1978 and was a member of the Clothing EDC and of the National Economic Development Office Joint Textile Committee from 1978 to 1988.

Kearney also had a stint in politics. He was an unsuccessful Labor Party candidate for Parliament in the 1974 elections, and in 1978 he was elected Councillor in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London.

He was elected as federation general secretary in 1988. Kearney visited more than 140 countries and saw a growth in the group’s membership to nine million from 5.3 million workers in 245 affiliated unions in 130 countries.

In 1998, Kearney received the “Il Natale, La Notta della Vita” international award for his work on the elimination of child labor worldwide. In 1999, he received the “Work and Environment Award” of the Associazione Ambiente e Lavoro for his efforts to improve working conditions, especially in developing countries.

Kearney confronted a wide range of worker abuses for the Brussels-based umbrella organization for national workers’ unions in the textile, apparel and leather industries. Some of the federation’s recent initiatives involved taking steps to help eradicate child and forced labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, helping Sri Lankan garment workers secure fair wages, urging the Indian government to crack down on child traffickers and calling on apparel firms to provide a “living wage” to workers stitching clothing and footwear in factories around the world.

Kearney is survived by his wife, Jutta, and two daughters, Nicole and Caroline.

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