On the ground floor of the Ministry of Labour, amid campaign banners and luggage scattered around, groups of women are engaged in activities. When night falls, mosquito nets of various colours occupy the place. These are members of the Triumph Labour Union, which has been active since 1980, and is reputedly one of the most enduring.
1,960 union members were laid off in late June due to, the company claimed, a fall in orders and restructuring. However, the company has set up a new factory and hired temporary labour in Nakhon Sawan instead.
The workers have since staged protests and rallies demanding the company reinstate them, or at least pay fair compensation.
It has been over a hundred days already. Many of them have moved from their protest site in front of the factory in Bang Phli, Samut Prakan, to the Ministry of Labour in Bangkok.
Now they are in the process of producing a prototype of their own brand of panties called ‘Try Arm’. Using jargon incomprehensible to those outside their profession, they have been discussing about how to make it to the same, or almost the same, standards as the products they made for the world class brand. They have smuggled four ‘unadjusted’ sewing machines from their homes to the ministry building.
Nearly 200 workers at the ministry work in different sections, on very specific tasks, as in the factory. They more or less represent all sections in the production line.
‘The negotiations have been going nowhere. Being here with nothing to do, we see many people walking up and down. So we’ve come up with the idea of making panties for sale,’ says Jitra Kotchadej, former Chair of the union, who was the first to be dismissed by the company.
They brainstormed about the project one night. A Triumph designer and a sewing machine technician, who were also laid off, volunteered to help. They put together scrap cloth which each of them has bought from the factory, and bought some more.
‘The designer is very skilled. But the company has bought designs from abroad instead. So he was laid off. He came here for just half an hour, and in no time he came up with 6 designs. These are going to be panties of a design and quality on a par with those of the Triumph brand, because they are made by the same people,’ a bespectacled woman says proudly.
They seem proud of their skill and what they have been doing for years or decades. They can talk at great length and in great detail of how to produce underwear. Apparently, according to their description, to make such a small item of underwear requires skilled effort and minutely detailed care.
Asked what she did in the factory, Jitra says, ‘Check 100.’
Another jargon for quality control. A finished product has to be tested for its durability and elasticity by being yanked. And the lace must be aligned perfectly on both sides, etc.
‘Our skills are not mediocre. Many global brands have hired Triumph. And Thai Triumph’s work is meticulous. The swimsuits used in the Miss Thailand pageant the other night were made by us. It was the last lot before the layoff,’ Jitra says proudly.
‘Try Arm’ sounds similar to ‘Triumph’. And it is meant to be symbolic of their struggle and to represent quality products which are not expensive and exploitative of labour.
‘We think we will start at a price of 19 baht, focusing on middle-aged customers,’ Jitra says.
This is in the hope of bringing in some revenue to support their struggle. For months, they have relied on their dwindling ‘strike fund’ which the union collected from members. After a strike and the company’s subsequent lock-out for 42 days in 1999, they set up the fund in 2000, collecting 10 baht a month from each union member.
‘We will start with panties, and if they sell, we’ll make more women’s underwear, and then swimsuits. Most of us are skilled swimsuit makers. We’ll probably call a press conference, organize a fashion show, and hold an auction for the first ‘Try Arm’ swimsuit, like those famous brands,’ Jitra laughs heartily.
‘But, first, we will present the first pair of panties to the Director-General of the Department of Labour. He has walked up and down here. We’ve already noted his size,’ the bespectacled woman says with a wink.