Labor, Gender & Globalization: The Implications of My Underwear

Lately, all I can think of when I look at patterned clothing is where it came from. For some reason artificial patterns—stripes, polka dots, texts or cartoon characters—bring factories to mind for me more quickly. It may be because the uniformed chaos is so clearly machine-printed, and emphasizing the methodical kind of system made to churn out many million copies of a product.

For better or worse, studying science has only intensified my natural impulse to obsess over complex processes. I can’t help my preoccupation with the origins of these fabrics—who stamped the hounds-tooth pattern onto tens of thousands of rain boots? Who attached the clasps to all of my bras, and all of my friends’ bras, and all of the bras worn by all of the students in my school, and all of their friends’ bras? Whose daily work is dedicated to this? And when I checked the “made in” labels, why were they almost all from Asia?

Luckily, I now have some answers to my questions. In late October, I had the unique opportunity to have lunch with the renowned Thai organizer Jittra Cotshadet (sometimes Hampshire College is a really cool place to be). In the news, she’s usually called a labor activist, but I’d argue we could just as easily call her a women’s rights activist.

Jittra Cotshadet used to be a garment worker at Triumph International, an enormous underwear production company operating in 120 countries, with headquarters in Switzerland. In Thailand, labor was extremely cheap and profitable for companies like Triumph—it cost the equivalent of about $0.65 to produce a pair of underwear that could be sold for between $5 to $40 elsewhere in the world. Triumph was considered one of the more lucrative and stable places to work in the garment district of Bangkok, and it was the main option available to Cotshadet, who couldn’t afford college. An extra reward was available for workers who took no leave all year: a bonus of about 1,800 baht, or $59.

The Bangkok Triumph International also has one of the most stable labor unions, active since 1980. The union—of which Cotshadet is a former elected president—had collected 10 baht per paycheck since 1999, to create an emergency fund for survival, should employees ever need to strike. This fund came into full use in June 2009, when Triumph International fired 1,959 workers, most of who had been employed at the factory for years—including Jittra Cotshadet and other active union organizers.

The reason the company gave was economic decline, but this is doubtful in light of the expansion of another of their Thai factories in a more northern region—a non-union plant. A sister factory in the Philippines with high union membership experienced a parallel mass firing at the same time, with the same reasons given. By failing to negotiate with its labor unions, Triumph violated guidelines for multinational enterprises, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as by the conventions defined by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).

The reaction to the 2009 firing was swift and powerful: in addition to filing a complaint with the OECD and ILO, hundreds of women and their families camped out on the ground floor of the Bangkok Ministry of Labor for eight months. Over the course of the protest, the number of women shrunk from over 1,000 participating to about 400, as the protesters were forced to find other work. Cotshadet tells this story without any resentment or disappointment: in fact, the remaining workers organized to form a new, independent manufacturing company, which they called Try Arm. They presented their proposal to the Labor Ministry, requesting 400 sewing machines to start off their reclaimed livelihood. When the Ministry granted them 250 machines, the women agreed to leave the premises on the last day of February, 2010.

The media sources I found described the strike as a clear though modest victory: 250 sewing machines were awarded and the women had the government’s support to start business! Cotshadet’s story is not quite as rosy, though. The start-up had requested 400 machines because that was the number they needed. The remaining 150 machines the worker-owned company did not receive were given instead to supporters of the party members in office. “I was enraged because they were making money out of our misery,” Cotshadet told us.

In her leadership position, Cotshadet has encountered more than her share of obstacles. As a public figure, she received increasing negative attention from the government in  years leading up to the 2009 mass firing. She touched on a few of these instances briefly during her lecture at Hampshire, including a lawsuit Triumph successfully filed against her in 2008. The company was awarded damages for Cotshadet’s “demonstrated lack of patriotism,” which was considered to have harmed the company’s public image. These offenses included not wearing yellow on a Monday (the King’s birthday), not wearing black when the King’s sister passed away, and publicly supporting a boy who was sentenced to death for not standing during a speech given by the King. Because of this activism, she was deemed part of a “movement to destroy the monarchy.” Cotshadet spoke about the political danger surrounding protests in Thailand, as well as free speech in general, particularly around “moral” issues like the death penalty and reproductive rights.

Why do I argue that this is as much a women’s rights issue as it is a labor rights issue? For starters, almost all of those directly affected are women. Two protestors out of the initial group of 1,000 were men (there were also two men among the twenty people who came to hear Cotshadet speak in person at Hampshire). The officials deciding on Cotshadet’s non-repealable sentence in the suit versus Triumph, as well as those working at the Ministry of Labour, are mostly men. As of this year, Thailand has its first female prime minister, but Cotshadet expressed disappointment in her actions, explaining that she has done nothing to advance women’s rights through promoting maternal leave or legalizing abortion since taking office. Even in the limited media coverage of the protest, the nearly ubiquitous inclusion of the word “panties” seemed to trivialize the struggle in both Western and translated presses. Finally, Cotshadet’s position as a political rebel for free speech is not limited to issues of workplace safety and dignity, but overlaps with her outspoken support for reproductive rights.

When I talk to other people about the production of clothing, the conversations often don’t really go anywhere. It can end up feeling like the equivalent of “people are starving in X, so eat your dinner.” After hearing Jittra Cotshadet speak, though, I see the issue as intimately tied to our life in the U.S. The laborers who make those boots and bras I wonder about are fighting for the same stuff I want: just payment for work, reproductive rights, and free speech without persecution.

Try Arm, with its 250 starter machines, has begun to make both men’s and women’s underwear. They sell domestically as well as exporting to foreign markets, and though the workdays are still long and challenging, the workers are earning more than the Thai minimum wage: about $10 a day, versus the minimum $7. And, as Cotshadet told us, “What’s most important is that they feel a sense of ownership.”

•   •   •

To support or buy products from the Try Arm women workers’ co-operative, call 08-7020-6672 or 08-7926-5231, or email tryarm.underwear@gmail.com.

To learn more about worker-owned cooperatives in the United States, visit the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. (Or visit Food For Thought Books or Collective Copies in the Pioneer Valley to ask a worker how it’s done!)

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