OPINION

Global brands, global exploitation

Why are brands worth over $500bn refusing to pay $111,000 in unpaid wages and compensation to 26 Burmese garment workers making their merchandise?

Migrant workers cross the border between Thailand and Myanmar in a boat in the Moei River near Mae Sot, in northern Thailand on July 7, 2017 [File: AFP/Ye Aung Thu]
Migrant workers cross the border between Thailand and Myanmar in a boat in the Moei River near Mae Sot, in northern Thailand on July 7, 2017 [File: AFP/Ye Aung Thu]

A small Thai factory without a name, more of a room than anything else, few windows, a ceiling low enough that those inside could touch it, toilets too dirty to use, one door at the front, another at the back providing the only fresh air, and no electric fans to cool temperatures of up to 37 degrees Celsius (100F). This is the setting where 26 garment workers spent seven days a week earning well below the minimum wage of 310 baht ($10.15), making clothes for some of the world’s biggest companies: Disney, Starbucks, NBC Universal and Tesco.

The factory, referred to as Kanlayanee after the owner Kanlayanee Ruengrit, was based in the Mae Sot region of Thailand, close to the border with Myanmar. The region is a well-known regulatory black hole where exploitation is rife and many garment factories operate uninspected, with sub-contracting a regular occurrence. Over 44,500 workers are based in Mae Sot, most of them migrants from neighbouring Myanmar.

The workers in this factory were all from Myanmar. They, like thousands of others, crossed the border to Thailand in the hope of earning more than they could in Myanmar in order to send money home to provide for their families. The reality has been very different. “I know that most factories in Mae Sot do not pay the minimum wage, but if we refuse work, we will starve,” Ma Tin, one of the Kanlayanee workers told me.

Migrant garment workers are in precarious positions; often on short-term, low-paid contracts, they are extremely vulnerable to abuse of their rights, and many do not or cannot join unions, fearing reprisal and loss of their jobs if they push for their rights. They take such jobs because they are desperate and it is all that is available to them.

Conditions in the Kanlayanee factory (which would be shocking were they not so common in the garment industry) were made public in September 2019, after which Starbucks cut and ran, pulling its orders, causing the factory to close suddenly, leaving the workers without jobs or their legally-owed back wages and severance pay.

In October 2019, workers filed a complaint with the Ministry of Labour, demanding compensation for underpaid wages, unpaid holidays, unpaid overtime and severance pay. The case went to court which ruled in favour of the workers, awarding them 3.48 million baht ($111,000). However, now more than one year on, the workers have still not received anything.

The Thai courts cannot give these workers justice. Although the claim was upheld, workers now are being pressured to take a far lower amount, less than one-third of the original settlement, which is all that the factory owner has; her sweatshop sideline was not the high earner she might have hoped. As always, the only ones with the money are the brands.

This case exemplifies the problems with the global garment industry. Four of the factory’s clients – Disney, NBC Universal, Starbucks and Tesco – have a combined market value of $516bn, yet have failed to collectively find $111,000, to ensure these workers, who were exploited making their clothes and their profits, receive what they are legally owed.

To these brands, the dip would be imperceptible, but to these workers, it could be the difference between life and death. As one Kanlayanee worker said: “I live my life surviving day by day, without a future. If I need to see a doctor, I won’t have any money to pay.”

This is no Disney story with a happy ever after. The 26 Kanlayanee workers are currently in desperate situations made worse by COVID-19, and many are surviving on borrowed money. Most have been unable to find new work having been blacklisted, their names and photographs sent to nearby factories, naming them as troublemakers. Some simply wish for enough money to return home to Myanmar, but they cannot afford the travel costs.

The message to other migrant workers in Mae Sot is clear: shut up and put up or face the consequences. The lucky few that have found new jobs live with no security, on short-term contracts earning piece-rate poverty wages. Ma Tin is one of those who has found alternative work in a factory, 15 hours each day and for this, she earns between 4,000- 5,000 baht ($128 – $160) per month. When asked what she will do if she finally receives the money she is owed, Ma Tin said: “I will pay back what I owe and keep some for travel costs. I would like to go back to my home.”

Large corporations operate in an industry model designed to work only for those at the top. Clothing brands rarely employ garment workers directly, the factory owner does that. This conveniently allows these companies to get away with exploitation on such a scale that the Kanlayanee workers are now forced to pick morning glory (water spinach) from the roadside just to have something to eat each day. They are living in abject poverty because some of the biggest global companies refuse to take responsibility.

Companies fear a “dangerous precedent” being set: they do not want to be held responsible for how their profits and products are made and by whom. They insist that they are trying their best but their hands are tied, that they simply have no idea how exploitation got into their supply chain. The hole in this narrative is that the business model is built on exploitation.

The purchasing practices of brands pit factories against each other and make paying a living wage near impossible for factory owners. The prices brands pay mean corners are cut on safety; their failure in due diligence means union-busting – undermining or destroying union presence within a factory – is common. The large companies’ irresponsible exits, such as Starbucks pulling out of the Kanlayanee factory after the abuse became public, often bring factories to bankruptcy in their wake. Their shock when abuse is uncovered can be nothing more than an act because not only are they complicit in it, they cause it. The power is fully on the side of multibillion-dollar brands.

This is a tired old tale. It follows the same exploitative path well-trodden by countless multibillion-dollar brands before. There is, however, an extra twist of bitterness to this case because it involves two of the biggest names in children’s films, Disney and NBC Universal, companies whose reputations have been built on creating timeless films that have, at their core, a message with heart, showcasing triumph over adversity.

Why are the companies our children love so much, the ones who create the soundtracks to their childhoods, on the wrong side in this sordid tale of subjugation?

The Kanlayanee workers have taken indescribable risks in telling the truth, calling to account some of the biggest brands in the world. They have courageously raised their voices to speak out in an unequal fight where everything is stacked against them. At the time of writing, Tesco is the only brand to step forward and agree to pay towards what the workers are owed. Tesco has committed to pay over a quarter of the amount remaining.

On November 4, the workers will face renewed pressure from the Thai authorities. All 26 have been called to court and will be asked individually whether they will accept the lower offer from the factory owner. The court is exerting this pressure to close the case, not to achieve true justice. It is imperative that the three remaining brands which sourced from the factory take immediate action and commit to paying, as Tesco has done.

These workers are fighting for their futures. When will Disney, NBC Universal and Starbucks get behind their story?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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