SAMUT PRAKARN, Thailand, Jun 15 (IPS) - They were about 1,000 when they began, but that number quickly dwindled to some 400. Now the women working at Try Arm are down to 30, yet those running the cooperative that makes women’s undergarments are determined to succeed.
They probably have little other options. Rungnapa Boonmala, a 49-year-old who is the breadwinner in her family, remarks, "I’m trying to live as normal a life as possible. I used to live comfortably, but now I have to work harder."
She says finding another job will put her at a disadvantage since her salary would then start from the minimum wage. She also does not work in a factory without a labour union, but finding one may be hard in this South-east Asian country that has less than four percent of its workforce unionised.
Around this time last year, Rungnapa and the other women at Try Arm were part of the 4,200-strong workforce of the German-Swiss lingerie company Triumph International’s plant at Samut Prakarn, some 29 kilometres south of Bangkok.
But by Jun. 29, 2009, they were among the almost 2,000 laid off by the firm due, the company said in a statement at the time, "to the global recession and a drop in global demand." According to Triumph, the retrenchment was also in line "with the company’s global restructuring programme."
Try Arm is actually a play on Triumph, and sounds similar to the way the company’s name is said in Thai. Its logo is a clenched fist. Although the small venture makes products similar to Triumph’s, its workers make only 250 baht (7.68 U.S. dollars) a day, significantly lower than the average of 350 baht (10.75 dollars) they used to earn at the big lingerie firm.
For sure, export oriented industries are often the first casualties when demand drops during a recession. These industries, which include garments, toys and electronics, also employ mostly women workers. According to the Friends of Women Foundation, a local network promoting women’s rights, women make up 90 percent of Thailand’s export-oriented workforce.
Thai labour ministry records show that in the first quarter of 2009 alone, more than 300 factories shut down and as many as 29,000 of the country’s 42 million workers were laid off.
The Triumph International Thailand Labour Union (TITLU), however, says that the company laid off only active union members in the plant here at Samut Prakarn, known as Thailand’s factory belt. (Triumph has another factory at Nakhon Sawan province, about 300 km north of Bangkok.)
But in a statement sent to IPS, Triumph says, "the restructuring included the layoff of managerial, supervisory and clerical staff as well as workers eligible for union membership."
TITLU also notes that many of those let go were women who had been with the company for more than 20 years. Triumph, however, says long-serving employees were not singled out in any way.
"As the large majority of employees of the factory were and are women with long service, naturally many of those laid off were women with more than twenty years service," says Triumph in its statement.
TITLU contends that Triumph violated the employees’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA), including the lack of prior consultation and unsatisfactory compensation terms. Although the dismissed workers are no longer looking for reinstatement, they want what they say is "fair compensation" that is based on a formula found in the CBA.
But Triumph points out that the TITLU brought its claim of CBA violation before the Thai Labour Court, which dismissed it on Dec. 17, 2009 and says the company had complied with the CBA.
Some 1,000 of the retrenched workers, meantime, staged a protest in front of the labour ministry for eight months. The protest ended on Feb. 28, after TITLU members accepted the ministry’s offer that included vocational training, bank loan applications, and a donation of 250 sewing machines.
Part of that offer made its way to Try Arm, which had begun operating during the protest. Now housed in a modest two-storey structure sandwiched between a semi-residential area and gated factories, Try Arm has 15 sewing machines and a cutting machine.
Although most of their colleagues have left while those still with Try Arm doggedly soldier on. Says Jittra Cotshadet, a former union leader and now Try Arm’s coordinator: "We will try to rebuild our resources and help each other survive in this system and society."
Try Arm produces a daily average of 200 pieces of underwear, which are sold for 59 baht (1.80 dollars) each. These are sold directly to shop visitors or taken to markets or neighbouring factories.
Try Arm also exports to Europe on a per-order basis. So far, says Jittra, Try Arm has sold 2,000 pieces to Swiss clients. But she admits that Try Arm barely makes a profit. It has set up a website (www.tryarm.org) and opened a Facebook account, to attract more orders.
Phomphan Srihatthanaprom of the Committee for Asian Women says her group is building a network for Try Arm via newsletters distributed to 46 trade unions in 14 Asian countries.
Khammai Pilapan – at 34 one of Try Arm’s youngest employees – can only hope that such efforts work. "My biggest concern is how to make ends meet," says the teary-eyed mother of a seven-year-old boy. "We all have to eat."
All of Try Arm’s personnel are either single mothers or married to minimum wage workers. Coordinator Jitthai is raising two teenaged sons by herself.
But some like Rungnapa apparently have a Plan B. The 18-year Triumph veteran says she took a pattern design course "so that I can sew clothes in the future."
(*This corrected version of the original story moved on Jun. 4, 2010 contains Triumph's statements on some of the claims made by the Triumph International Thailand Labour Union and omits the paragraphs stating the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had "accepted the case for further investigation" and "issued an alert" on the same.)