Thai garment workers denounce COVID arrests after rare labor victory | Business and economy

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – When the Thai government in May ordered a Hong Kong garment company to pay the unpaid wages of 1,250 laid-off Thai workers, union leader Sia Jampathong knew the rare victory would not be the end of the fight.

Jampathong, the president of the Thai Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers, soon saw his fears confirmed.

On July 7, Jampathong, the factory union president, and four student union activists were charged with violating pandemic restrictions on large gatherings during a protest outside Government House in Bangkok last year.

Jampathong does not deny violating the emergency decree on large gatherings. But he believes authorities are selectively enforcing the rules to keep the labor movement in line after winning a rare victory in the Southeast Asian country, where workers enjoy minimal protection from exploitation and abuses.

Thailand, which has been ruled by former army officer Prayuth Chan-ocha since a military coup in 2014, tightly controls dissent, with authorities cracking down on labor activists and pro-democracy protesters in recent years. .

“It’s like it’s discrimination from the government, it’s more like an excuse they tried to use against us,” Jampathong told Al Jazeera, adding that protest participants had taken precautions such as wearing masks.

“I think we have waited a long time. We haven’t been out for several months. This is proof that the government has failed to solve the problem. We had no other options, so we had to bring in workers to meet with the government.

Al Jazeera’s efforts to contact the Justice Department for comment were unsuccessful.

Union activists say they are being selectively targeted by authorities for staging protests during the pandemic [Courtesy of The Textile Garment And Leather Workers Federation of Thailand]

The case against Jampathong and fellow activists comes after Hong Kong-headquartered Clover Group International was ordered to pay 281 million baht ($8.3 million) in back wages and compensation severance to laid-off workers at Brilliant Alliance Thai Global, which closed on one day’s notice after bankruptcy in March 2021.

Victoria’s Secret, which outsourced the production of its lingerie to the factory, agreed to fund the settlement with a loan to the Hong Kong-based company. Clover Group International initially called for the payments to be made over a 10-year period, a strategy rejected by the workers.

In Thai labor disputes, workers often never see their wages or severance pay unpaid, even when the courts rule in their favor. A study last year by the Worker Rights Consortium found that in 31 similar cases in nine countries, more than 37,000 workers collectively owed $39.8 million.

Brilliant Alliance’s mostly female workforce, some of whom had worked at the plant for decades, received just one day’s notice.

“When we saw it happened, a lot of people were crying. We were all shocked and surprised,” Teuanjai Waengkham, a 25-year-old worker who is general secretary of the Triumph International Labor Union, told Al Jazeera.

Waengkham said many workers had to take out loans to survive the 15 months they waited to be paid.

“Brilliant Alliance promised me it would be long term, that I would have a job for a long time,” she said.

Prasit Prasopsuk, president of the Industrial Labor Confederation of Thailand, said the shutdown took workers by surprise.

“The shutdown happened suddenly,” Prasopsuk told Al Jazeera. “Most, if not all, of the workers are not prepared for it. They had many burdens, they had many responsibilities. Many of them still had children in school.

Model for future activism

Brandix, a Sri Lanka-based clothing company that formed a partnership with Clover Group International two months after the shutdown to salvage its operations, said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the company had faced “serious financial difficulties “.

Brandix added that the new Clover Global is “completely different” from Clover Group International.

The Lau family, stakeholders in both companies, could not be reached for comment on the company’s bankruptcy or the abrupt closure.

For workers’ rights advocates, the successful campaign by Brilliant Alliance workers offers a model for other cases in Thailand and abroad.

After the factory closed, hundreds of civil society organizations got involved in a global campaign calling on consumers to hold brands accountable.

Pay Your Workers campaign representative Sarah Newell believes consumer pressure motivated Victoria’s Secret to fund the workers’ settlement.

“It’s easier than ever to get consumers and people in America and Europe to understand exactly what’s going on and to care about the issue, that the brands they buy from should act on an issue,” Newell told Al. Jazeera.

“If a brand calls itself a leader for women, it will make people take a closer look at what they are doing to women.”

Dave Welsh, national director of the Solidarity Center in Thailand, said the Brilliant Alliance workers’ campaign was a “model” in the global garment industry, involving government, international media, legal strategy and direct contact with marks.

“It was the largest settlement in the history of the global garment industry for an individual factory – by far the largest,” Welsh told Al Jazeera.

thai labor activists
Sia Jampathong [second from right] and five other union activists face up to two years in prison for violating pandemic restrictions [Courtesy of The Textile Garment And Leather Workers Federation of Thailand]

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 it’s a crime,” said Jampathong, who has previously been charged with public speaking.

“After [the indictment]we have to fight, and we will fight according to the facts.

He is supported by many other union activists, including his colleagues from the Thai Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers. In a recent Facebook post, the union expressed hope that Jampathong’s case would strike a blow against the oppression and exploitation of workers.

Awaiting his next court appearance on September 19, Jampathong remains proud of the labor movement’s campaign for Brilliant Alliance workers.

“I think this is the first time that I have seen the employer pay the full compensation ordered by the labor inspector.”

Michael O. Stutler