The invisible labor cost of famous clothing brands in Thailand

Migrant worker Ma Ma Khin

Ma Ma Khin (pseudonym), former migrant worker at a sewing factory. Photo from Prachatai

This article by Wanna Tamthong was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand. An edited version has been republished by Global Voices under a partner content-sharing agreement.

Ma Ma Khin (a pseudonym) is a female migrant worker who stood up against her employer in order to demand a fair minimum wage. She was working at a sewing factory on the Thai border, where many sewing and other factories are located, because of a government-promoted investment scheme in the border area.

The company Ma Ma Khin used to work for is a large-scale factory that produces retail clothing for famous foreign brands. The fight of Ma Ma Khin and her migrant worker colleagues started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ma Ma Khin said that when COVID hit a few years ago, many factories received fewer orders. Because Ma Ma Khin and the other migrant workers at the factory were paid on a piecework basis, when sewing orders decreased, there was almost nothing left of her monthly paycheck. During that time, Ma Ma Khin was paid only THB 2,000 for a month of sewing (USD 57) — far less than the state-mandated minimum of THB 9,000–10,000 per month, depending on the region.

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.

Ma Ma Khin said that working conditions at the sewing factory were quite challenging. She had to start work at 8:00 am, but it was uncertain when she would get off work since her end time was based on orders received by the factory. Whenever there were many orders, the workers had to work through the night to the next day.

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. 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 (US$257).

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

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.

After Ma Ma Khin and over a hundred migrant workers in the factory gathered to demand fair wages for themselves, the employer closed the factory gates and prevented the workers from going to work. Ma Ma Khin’s attempts to demand a fair wage ended with her being fired. Her employer put her name and the names of other protest leaders on a blacklist, and other factory owners were told not to hire this group of workers. Ma Ma Khin remains unemployed to this day.

However, Ma Ma Khin is not done fighting. She and her fellow migrant workers were assisted by human rights groups in filing a lawsuit against a United Kingdom company which owns the clothing brands whose products were made from sweatshop factories.

Asked about the hardships endured by workers in the clothing factory, Ma Ma Khin shared that “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 (made) through the sweat and tears of workers who have to suffer for it.”

A migrant worker scans a piece of paper showing her work order, payment, and deducted fees. Photo from Prachatai

Social security or police fee?

Ma Ma Khin also explained that there is corruption around the exploitation and use of forced labor in sewing factories. On the pay slips she received, there is a box that shows that each worker has 3 percent deducted from their salary. The document says that the deduction is for “social security,” but in reality, the employers failed to register their workers to the social security system.

Ma Ma Khin said that most migrant workers in the factory believe the money deducted every month in the name of “social security” is actually a “police fee” taken by the employer to pay the police. This is based on information they were told by management.

Thirawat Muphayak, Deputy Superintendent of Investigations at Mae Sot Provincial Police Station, told Prachathai that “police fee” is a term used among migrant workers and their employers to refer to 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 Deputy Superintendent of Investigations 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 was 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 (overtime). 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.

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 claimed managers told the workers this as a reason to take money out of their pay.

He added 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.

Demanding accountability from transnational investors

Suchart Trakoonhutip from the MAP Foundation has a proposal on how to make brand owners accountable:

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.

Suchart cited the work of Clean Clothes Campaign, an international labor rights advocacy organization. Through its “Pay Your Workers” campaign, brands are required to contribute to a fund. If a brand violates workers’ rights, the fund will be used to extend aid to affected workers. Suchart believes that this can be applied in Thailand by requiring investors to contribute to a fund that can be made accessible to migrants and displaced workers.

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