Exploited to the bone: the invisible cost of famous clothing brands

Story and photo by Wanna Tamthong
 

The right to fight but “no right” to receive the minimum wage

“I thought going to work in someone else’s country would be better than my own country. … I have only ever been oppressed,” said Ma Ma Khin, former worker at one sewing factory.

Ma Ma Khin (pseudonym) is a women migrant worker who stood up against her employer in order to demand a minimum wage for herself. She was working at a sewing factory on the Thai border, where many sewing and other factories and are located because of the government’s promotion of investment in the border area. As a result, a large number of workers from the country next doorcross the border as cheap labour for employers.

The sewing factory Ma Ma Khin used to work for is a large-scale factory which produces retail clothing for famous foreign brands whose names and logos are likely to be recognized by most Thai people. The fight of Ma Ma Khin and her migrant worker colleagues in the same factory started during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ma Ma Khin said that  when Covid-19 hit a few years ago, many factories received fewer orders. As a result, the workers earned less money because there was no work. During that time, Ma Ma Khin was paid only 2,000 baht for a month of sewing, as her wage was already less than the minimum wage. When sewing orders decreased, there was almost nothing left of  her monthly pay, because Ma Ma Khin and other migrant workers at the factory are paid on a piecework basis .       

“The employer didn’t pay the wage that is required by law. The life of workers is worse than it should normally be. I went to the employer and ask for a small wage increase because it was not a living wage. The employer didn’t care. Anyone who didn’t want to work could leave. But if we left our job there, where could we find a job during Covid-19? Making demands was like banging your head against the wall. It was pointless, because we got nothing,” said Ma Ma Khin.

Ma Ma Khin (pseudonym), former migrant worker at a sewing factory

Ma Ma Khin said that normal working conditions at the sewing factory were quite hard. She had to start work at 8 am, but it was uncertain when she would get off work, whether it would be 10 or 11 pm. But whenever there was a large number of orders, the workers had to work until the morning of the next day. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the factory received a lot of orders, and each worker had to sew thousands of pieces of clothes per month.

“This kind of work is contract garment sewing. You earn according to how much you do. If you’re asking how much I get, there were days when I didn’t get paid at all. Some days I got 50 baht, 100, baht, 150 baht, up to 300 baht. I don’t remember how many pieces I sew each day, but I know that there was very little time to rest. After I get back from work, I feel exhausted to the point that I can’t even eat. I worked there for a year, and in normal times (before Covid-19) the biggest salary I got was 9,000 baht,” said Ma Ma Khin.

Workers at this factory get only 1 day off per month after the day they receive their salary.

“Sometimes, asking for sick leave was not easy. You have to be sick at the point of death for the employer to allow you to go to the hospital. When I was recovering, I got only 1 paracetamol tablet. The life of workers is hard. It’s not just me alone. My friends also face the same problems,” said Ma Ma Khin.

After Ma Ma Khin and over a hundred migrant workers in the factory gathered to demand fair wages for themselves, what they got was not the wage they needed. The employer closed the factory gates, preventing the protesting workers from going to work before calling all the vocal workers in to sign a document. 

“But the document didn’t specify anything . It was just a blank piece of paper. We were concerned that they would put in unfair contract terms, so no one signed the document. After that, there were documents both in Thai and Burmese saying that employees agree to follow all of the factory’s 15 rules, but there was no details of the 15 rules, so once again no one signed it.

“In the end, on the 22nd, in the morning we could go to work. But in the evening, they posted an announcement that anyone who wants to keep working must sign the document. If we don’t sign it, then we cannot come to work the next day, so we contacted an organization which helps workers in the area. They suggested that we should continue going to work. When we went to work, it rained. The factory was closed and we were not allow to go in to work,” said Ma Ma Khin.

A document showing a month's worth of orders received by a worker.

Ma Ma Khin and other migrant workers were notified by the factory that they had to sign a new application form if they wanted to work. At this time, some protesting workers decided to sign the form so they could go back to work, but those who insisted on refusing to sign the document had to leave.

“We didn’t ask the employer for more than what we should get. We should be paid at the normal rate that workers should get. If we ask for 300 baht and they really can’t give it to us, then just 250 baht would be fine,” said Ma Ma Khin.

Ma Ma Khin’s attempts to demand a fair wage ended with her being fired. More importantly, her name and the names of other protest leaders were put on a blacklist by the employer, and other factory owners were told to not hire this group of workers. Ma Ma Khin remains unemployed to this day.

“I try to forget what happened in the past. If they give me clothes or pants to sew I can do it again. But my life cannot move any further forward. When I apply, I don’t get a job. I have a family to take care of. I am a mother with kids to raise and elderly parents to take care of. How can I continue to live each day? This is the pressure on me. I have to try very hard,” said Ma Ma Khin.

However, Ma Ma Khin is not done fighting. She and her migrant workers colleagues who were fired got together to file a lawsuit against the company which owns the clothing brands at a court in another country with the help of human rights organizations in the area for “neglect and receiving unfair benefits” because the factory it hired to make its products used forced labour and paid unfair wages.   

“We are workers. We don’t know anything. We only know that we produce the clothes and who we produce them for. Most are clothing brands in England. So, we looked for an organization who can help us. They gave advice on how to file a lawsuit, so we decided to file a complaint with the court in England,” said Ma Ma Khin.

Finally, when asked about what she thinks are the pains of being a worker in a sewing factory, Ma Ma Khin said “the life of a worker sewing clothes is very painful. In fact, the clothes that foreigners wear are the same articles of clothing that were earned through the sweat and tears of workers who have to suffer for it.”

“Police fee” – the “covert account” corruption problem hidden in the sewing factory

From the interview with Ma Ma Khin, we also learned that there is corruption hidden in the exploitation and use of forced labour in sewing factories. Ma Ma Khin explained that on the pay slips she received, there is a box saying that each worker has 3% deducted from their salary. The document says that the deduction is for “social security”, but in reality, many migrant workers in the sewing factory were not registered in social security system by the employer.  

Ma Ma Khin said that every migrant worker in the factory is well aware that the money deducted  every month in the name of “social security” is a “police fee” taken by the employer to pay the police. The workers understand the word “police fee” according to what they were told by the factory management.

“The workers once got together and asked [the factory management]. The manager said that it was the police fee. We are workers in the border area, The only document we have is a border pass, so we must pay the police fee too, but when it’s time to renew our work permit or our re-entry visa is due, we are the ones who have to pay for it ourselves. The factory collects the money but doesn’t pay for us,” said Ma Ma Khin

A document showing each worker's salary and the amount deducted for "social security."

Prachatai contacted the local police station where Pol Lt Col Thirawat Muphayak, Deputy Superintendent of Investigations at Mae Sot Provincial Police Station, who was assigned by the Superintendent of the station, said that “police fee” is a term used among migrant workers and their employers for a form of bribery properly called a “protection fee.”

“Everyone who is a migrant worker knows only the police. Whatever a military officer wears, they call them police. Whatever a government official wears, they call them police, because they only know the police, but they don’t know military and government personnel. The word “police fee” is a protection fee, the cost of looking after things as the accused (the factory manager) claimed.”

The factory owner is facing three charges. One charge is against the factory itself as a legal entity for making employees work overtime on working days without the employees’ consent, which is an offense under the Labour Protection Act. Another charge is against the factory manager and others for of confiscation of other people’s documents, using another person’s electronic cards, and theft. The third charge is against the factory owner for confiscation of work permits and personal documents of employees without their consent. The labour inspection staff has informed the public prosecutor that an indictment is justified. Currently, the prosecutor has already ordered an indictment on all three charges.         

The Deputy Superintendent of Investigations elaborated on the “police fee,” explaining that the manager of the sewing factory branch committed corruption and modified documents to create a “covert account”. He said that the manager confessed during the investigation that they took money from their employees’ pay to be paid to the military, the police, and administration officials. However, he said that this claim is false and used to scare the employees from leaving the premises.

“It’s a kind of claim that they tell the employees to scare them and stop them from leaving the premises. When they work, they have to stay in the factory and keep doing OT. This is a false claim. When the employees were taken in for questioning and asked whether they have seen police officials come to ask for money, none of the employees confirmed it and no one said they saw what the managers claimed,” he said.

Pol Lt Col Thirawat said that a joint investigation between the military, the police, and the administration did not find any official involved in the kind of extortion mentioned by the workers. He noted that the claims were made to the workers by the managers as a reason to take money out of their pay.

“For every 100 baht of pay, 3% or 5% would be deducted for the protection fee. An accommodation fee would also be taken, as well as a payment for not meeting targets. This was admitted by the accused who confessed that the claim about government officials was false,” he said.

Pol Lt Col Thirawat said that a subordinate manager of the sewing factory deducted money from workers’ pay, claiming that it was a “police fee,” and created a “covert account”. The subordinate manager and others involved would confiscate each worker’s ATM card and withdraw the money that they deducted from the workers’ pay before payday.

“A notification in the covert account had the employee look first. Suppose they worked for 100 baht; the deduction for the police fee and deductions for not coming to work on time and sick leave will leave 70 baht. I will give you 70 baht and the accused takes the rest that they withdraw themselves from an ATM machine. This counts as theft through the use of deception, taking the ATM cards. So there is the offense of using someone else’s electronic card illegally, and illegally confiscating other people’s documents,” said Pol Lt Col Thirawat.

After foreign media reports of forced labour in sewing factories, Deputy Police Chief Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn joined an investigation with local officials. The Provincial Police Bureau set up a working investigation committee and “brought the best police in the region at the level of superintendent to work on screening for victims of human trafficking according to the principles of the National Referral Mechanism. The initial screening found no victims of human trafficking according to the Anti Human Trafficking Act, including forced labour under Section 6/1. After that, we initially gave up this issue. But later, a group of NGOs disagreed and made a new call for justice to Deputy Surachet. So there was a second screening.”

During the second victim screening, a non-government organization was given permission to participate in interviewing the workers. Despite gaining more information, still no victim of human trafficking was found.

How to ensure transnational investors are not beyond the scope of accountability

“More than 20 years ago, there was a saying that when investors came, they came with just one bag, meaning a bag for money, a wallet. When they are in the area, workers might start fighting for their rights. If it becomes unbearable, investors can just take their bag filled with money and return to their country. Situations like this still exist,” said Suchart Trakoonhutip

Suchart Trakoonhutip, MAP Foundation

The owners of foreign clothing brands also cannot be ignored when seeking accountability for labour rights violations that happen in sewing factories. Suchart Trakoonhutip from the MAP Foundation, who has long been working to assist migrant workers, explained: 

“The overall situation of migrant workers in the garment sewing industry is that most are not given the rights stipulated by Thai laws. The situation is especially bad on the Thai borders. Even the minimum wage is almost impossible for a migrant worker to get, while they cannot use other rights as well. They cannot use the right to take leave, such as a paid time off. This is a problem that we have always faced. Migrant workers are always face problems of rights violations,” said Suchart.

Migrant workers in sewing factories have to live with unfair working conditions despite working for expensive clothing brands. Suchart believes that one of the factors contributing to the exploitation of workers is that the workers come over from Myanmar, where the economic situation is not so good when compared with Thailand and where there is also currently internal unrest.

“When they put up with it, it’s not about themselves alone. When they put up with it, it’s for their family. If they stand up to fight or cannot stand it, what will happen to them is that they get fired. Finding a new job is not easy. Their family in their home country is also waiting for money from them. Their family and their financial situation are the reasons why workers have to think it through when they demand their own rights. They didn’t just leave behind one or two people. There are 7-8 people in some families that are waiting for hope from them. This is the reason why they have to put up with rights violations. The employers also rely on this very opportunity to oppress them. They know the workers have nowhere to go,” said Suchart.

Not only does the factory owner benefit from labour exploitation, the owners of the brands that order from the factories that exploit the workers also receive direct benefits from ordering the products. In order to ensure that the brand owners, who are foreign investors, remain accountable, Suchart proposed that the brand owners must be directly involved in handling the production situations that involve human rights violations, “not just cutting orders when they know that the factory is violating [workers’] rights and ordering from somewhere else.”

“Is it possible for the government to set up a fund and request direct contributions from foreign investors? Anyone who wants to invest in Thailand must first contribute to this fund, and if the investor violates [labour] rights and escapes, the government will use the money from this fund to compensate the workers in line with their rights to receive it. We already proposed this a long time ago, but there has been no sign of clarity about what to do with these investors,” said Suchart.

Suchart mentioned that in foreign countries, the Clean Clothes Campaign, an international labour rights advocacy organization, has started a campaign called “Pay Your Workers” where the brands must contribute to a fund. If a brand violates workers’ rights, the fund will distribute to the workers the money the brand has contributed. Suchart believes that this is a way that can be followed at the same time as a fund which requests money from investors that is being proposed in Thailand by a network of migrant worker rights campaigners.

Labour rights protection remains a big issue that government and business sector must be aware of so that they can put into practice Business and Human Rights principles. Because most investors who come to invest in Thailand use the method of leasing and do not have property in Thailand that can be confiscated in cases of labour rights violations, it means that these foreign investors may not be held responsible to the lives of migrant workers in whose exploitation they are complicit.   

“Most investors are leasing. There is only a very small number that would buy [property] of their own. Or if they buy, they would hire other people to manage it. The property will not belong to the employer directly so that it could be confiscated when there are lawsuits. What we face is all their preparations in readiness for fleeing. Assets are sold and transferred elsewhere. The workers cannot come to confiscate anything or file any complaint against the investors. I think that the Thai government itself must be stringent with policies to deal with these investors,” said Suchart.

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