A small shop house on Sukhumvit Soi 115, in passing, might look like just another sewing shop. The women sitting behind the sewing machines might appear like just other women workers in the big city. On closer look, these women who call themselves the Try Arm Group, are not only making undergarments - they are weaving their dream for a fairer and better life.
Their name is not unknown, for they have made the headlines several times since they were laid off from Triumph International Thailand in June 2009. Given an all too common reason - company restructuring - and barely legal compensation, they felt they had been treated unfairly and decided to fight for justice.
Their many struggles, from gatherings to filing lawsuits, met with little success. Even their most enduring effort, camping out on the ground floor of the Ministry of Labour for eight solid months, won them just promises of support. They agreed to leave the premises on February 28 in exchange for the promise of 250 sewing machines to set up their own business.
Whether or not the promise will be fulfilled, Jittra Cotshadet, consultant of the Triumph International Thailand Labour Union (TITLU) vowed that her Try Arm group will not just call the layoffs fate and let the government's nonchalant solution determine their future.
Try Arm left the ministry grounds feeling that the gathering was unfruitful and they would rather do something else with their lives. From the 1,959 laid-off workers, around 1,000 stuck together initially and fought for justice together. Unfortunately, time and financial obligations forced many of them to find other jobs, so the group grew smaller little by little. Today, there are only 400 fighters left - only two of whom are men.
Jittra recalled the day the bad news was delivered to her and her fellow workers. "We received a text message at 2am on a Saturday, saying there would be a meeting the next morning. We were all clueless and never expected such news. A brown envelope was handed to each of us, some containing bad news that we were being let go, some containing a new employee card to keep working."
Another ex-worker shared her experience with a sad smile on her face, "I had just been working overtime on Friday. Who would have thought I would be laid off the very next day?"
The initial reaction for most was shocked silence, followed by a range of mixed emotions. "Some threw the envelope on the ground and stomped on it, yelling 'I have given my life to this factory, and this is how you repay me?' Some just cried. Some passed out. Some even passed away a few months later because their sickness worsened from the lack of will to carry on."
Yes, they were given compensation, a sum of money worth up to 10 months' salary, but she said the minimal compensation was unfair for what they had to go through.
"People may not realise the impact it has on our lives. What's another bunch of unemployed factory workers in this kind of economic environment? Believe it or not, most of us are single women, single mothers or married women with an unemployed husband and little children at home to feed. We were the breadwinners, so our unemployment affects a lot of people, not just ourselves."
She said one of her friends who had just tested positive for pregnancy was left with no choice but to have an abortion because she could not afford to take care of herself, let alone another impending life.
The mass layoffs at Triumph mark another grim episode for women workers who are the backbone of the garment and manufacturing industry for export, one of the country's major income earners. Before or now, when the economy is down, women are the first to be laid off.
While the former Triumph workers said they understood that the economy was bad and many factories also had to resort to mass layoffs, what they did not understand was why they had not been informed or consulted with, or on what criteria the layoffs were based. Jittra suspected, however, that most of the laid-off workers were active members of TITLU, an observation that the company publicly denied. Jittra said the company failed to enter negotiations with the unions and therefore violated the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) guidelines for multinational enterprises as well as ILO conventions. The union felt that a hidden agenda of Triumph was to get rid of its outspoken workers.
Jittra said the union had always worked very hard to fight for what the workers deserved, and she suspected that it might be another reason why the union and the company did not exactly get along. "We were a very strong union and sometimes I think the company did not like the fact that we were not under their thumb. We had our own voice and opinions, which might not agree with the company's."
Looking back to the working days of their lives, the Try Arm members agreed that this factory was one of the most financially rewarding places to work in the garment sector. Most workers in the Try Arm group had been with the factory for over a decade.
"We worked so hard to make money. If we worked without leave for a whole year, we got an extra 1,800 baht, which to us meant a great deal," said Jittra. She turned to ask her friends, "How many of you forewent your entitled holidays to get that extra money?", and tens of arms shot up. Ma, who had been working at Triumph International Thailand for almost 20 years, said she had never taken any leave throughout those two decades.
Admittedly well paid compared to other factories, it was not easy money. They worked from 7am to 3pm or later, depending on the orders for each day. During the day, they were so rushed they could not even afford to get up and go to the toilet. As a result, they would not drink any water during their working hours, and urinary tract infections were a common occurrence, as well as back sprains or wrist injuries.
Jittra said it was the workers' own decision to push their luck with each postponed trip to the toilet, to say no to water and to give up social events like weddings and funerals to earn as much working minutes as possible in exchange for money.
"We were not forced by the company's rules, but the situation did not really leave us with other choices. With such tall orders, every second counted."
After the news was broken to them, they sought help from many organisations, such as the Ministry of Labour, Foundation for Consumers, the Swiss Embassy of Thailand, Thai Board of Investment (BOI), Office of the National Human Rights Commissions of Thailand and a few international organisations. Try Arm representatives were invited to join seminars and conferences in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland last year to press Triumph International to ensure compliance with its Code of Conduct, international labour standards and basic human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, ILO conventions and the UN Global Compact. They received great attention from labour activists, NGOs and trade unions in Europe, but on their own home front their efforts were mostly ignored, or even frowned upon.
While camping out at the Ministry of Labour, Try Arm put their skills and leftover materials to use by making panties for sale, priced at 59 baht for the exact same quality and style that Triumph sells for a few hundred baht. "If we could make so much money for the company, why couldn't we do it for ourselves?" Jittra challenged.
The name Try Arm is meant to sound like Triumph, she explained. The two words also best describe what they do - trying to fight with their own two arms. What they got selling the Triumph-standard 59-baht panties earned them just enough to get through another day. "Our products are cheaper and guilt-free. No bloodthirsty capitalism is woven into the fabric," Jittra said with a smile.
Jittra wants consumers at large to realise the ugly truth of the garment industry, not just regarding her old workplace but the business in general. "When I see models posing for magazines in the swimsuits my friends and I made, I can't help but feel life is terribly unfair. These models get paid 300,000 baht to wear it for a few minutes, while we get only 100 or 200 from sewing a thousand of these swimsuits a day. But sometimes when we watch beauty pageants on television and see the contestants wear the swimsuits that we've sewn, we can't help but smile, recognising and admiring our stitches from afar," she said with a smile.
The cost to make one pair of panties, according to Jittra, is around 20 baht, but can be sold for 200 baht locally and up to 2,000 baht internationally. "I don't know if the consumers realise this, but the clothes they are wearing, sometimes they come from the blood, sweat and tears of the factory workers."
With the new mini-factory they set up with their own hands with the small money they have made over the months, coupled with the promise of new sewing machines, Jittra and her friends are hopeful that their lives will be, although not easier, a little fairer. "We can never compete with big companies like Triumph but we can make enough to feed ourselves. Also, we'll be free to go to the toilet whenever we want and drink water if we're thirsty. We also want to show the world that we can survive better without capitalist constraints. We might not make as much money as before, but we'll get a bit more out of life."
To support or buy products from the Try Arm women workers' co-operative, call 08-7020-6672 or 08-7926-5231, or email email@example.com.