Thai garment workers decry COVID arrests after rare labour win
Labour activists claim authorities are selectively enforcing pandemic rules to suppress organising.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – When the Thai government in May ordered a Hong Kong clothing company to pay unpaid wages to 1,250 laid-off Thai factory workers, union leader Sia Jampathong knew the rare win would not be the end of the fight.
Jampathong, the president of the Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation of Thailand, soon had his fears confirmed.
On July 7, Jampathong, the factory union chairwoman, and four student labour activists were indicted for violating pandemic restrictions on large gatherings during a protest outside Government House in Bangkok last year.
Jampathong does not deny breaching the emergency decree on large gatherings. But he believes authorities are selectively enforcing the rules to keep the labour movement in line after scoring a rare victory in the Southeast Asian country, where workers have minimal protections against exploitation and abuse.
Thailand, which has been governed by former army officer Prayuth Chan-ocha since a 2014 military coup, keeps a tight rein on dissent, with authorities in recent years cracking down on labour activists and pro-democracy protesters.
“It feels like it was discrimination from the government, it was more like an excuse they tried to use on us,” Jampathong told Al Jazeera, adding that the participants in the protests had taken precautions such as wearing masks.
“I think we kept patient for a long time. There were many months that we didn’t come out. It’s proof that the government failed to solve the problem. We had no other options, so we had to bring workers to meet the government.”
Efforts by Al Jazeera to contact the Ministry of Justice for comment were unsuccessful.
The case against Jampathong and his fellow activists comes after Hong Kong-headquartered Clover Group International was ordered to pay 281 million baht ($8.3 million) in back wages and severance to workers laid off from Brilliant Alliance Thai Global, which shut with a day’s notice following bankruptcy in March 2021.
Victoria’s Secret, which outsourced production of its lingerie to the factory, agreed to fund the settlement through a loan to the Hong Kong-based company. Clover Group International initially requested that the payments be made over a 10-year period, a strategy rejected by the workers.
In Thai labour disputes, workers often never see their unpaid wages or severance pay, even when courts rule in their favour. A study last year by the Worker Rights Consortium found that, in 31 similar cases in nine countries, more than 37,000 workers were collectively owed $39.8m.
Brilliant Alliance’s mostly female workforce, some of whom had worked at the factory for decades, were given just one day’s notice.
“When we saw that it happened, a lot of people were crying. We were all shocked and surprised,” Teuanjai Waengkham, a 25-year worker who serves as general secretary of Triumph International Labour Union, told Al Jazeera.
Waengkham said many workers had to take out loans to survive during the 15 months they waited to be paid.
“Brilliant Alliance promised me this would be long-term, I would have a job for a long time,” she said.
Prasit Prasopsuk, president of the Confederation of Industrial Labour of Thailand, said the closure caught workers by complete surprise.
“The shutdown happened suddenly,” Prasopsuk told Al Jazeera. “Most, if not all, workers did not prepare for this. They had lots of burdens, they had lots of responsibilities. Lots of them still had kids in school.”
Template for future activism
Brandix, a Sri Lanka-based apparel company that formed a partnership with Clover Group International two months after the closure to rescue its operations, said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the company had faced “severe financial distress”.
Brandix added that the newly-formed Clover Global is “completely different” from Clover Group International.
The Lau family, stakeholders in both companies, could not be reached for comment regarding the company’s bankruptcy or the abruptness of the closure.
For labour advocates, the Brilliant Alliance workers’ successful campaign offers a template for other cases both in Thailand and overseas.
Following the factory’s closure, hundreds of civil society organisations became involved in a global campaign that called on consumers to hold the brands accountable.
Sarah Newell, a representative of the Pay Your Workers campaign, believes consumer pressure motivated Victoria’s Secret to finance the workers’ settlement.
“It is easier than ever to get consumers and people in America and Europe to understand exactly what’s going on and to feel like they have a stake in the problem, that the brands they purchase from should take action on a problem,” Newell told Al Jazeera.
“If a brand calls themself a leader for women, it’s going to cause people to look more closely at the things they do to women.”
Dave Welsh, Thailand country director of the Solidarity Center, said the Brilliant Alliance workers’ campaign was a “model” in the global garment industry, involving government, international media, legal strategy and direct contact with brands.
“It was the largest settlement ever in the history of the global garment industry for an individual factory — by far the largest,” Welsh told Al Jazeera.
Yet challenges remain.
While Jampathong and his colleagues were released on bail last week, they face up to two years in prison and a fine of 40,000 baht ($1,102).
“I’m trying to stay positive, I don’t think this is a felony case,” said Jampathong, who has faced charges for speaking out in public before.
“After [the indictment], we have to fight, and we will fight according to facts.”
Supporting him are numerous other labour activists, including his colleagues at the Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation of Thailand. In a recent Facebook post, the union expressed hope that Jampathong’s case would strike a blow against the oppression and exploitation of workers.
While he awaits his next court date on September 19, Jampathong remains proud of the labour movement’s campaign for the Brilliant Alliance workers.
“I think this is the first time I’ve seen the employer paid the full amount of the compensation as ordered by the labour inspector.”