‘No Chains’ for the Thai ‘Dignity Returns’ sweat-free garment labour cooperative

Excerpted from Doris Lee, via the Asia Monitor Resource Centre in Hong Kong:

(watch the videos on Dignity Returns here)

“Manop Kaewpaka produces clothes at a garment factory called Dignity Returns in Bangkok, Thailand – she earns above a living wage, decides her workplace conditions with her colleagues, and whenever possible, she joins in the struggles of other factory workers who have been laid off or unjustly treated. Tamara Rosenberg at her factory 20th of December, also called La Alameda, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, does the same. In the whole global South, factories in different countries are pitched in a fierce race to the bottom, competing for orders mostly from the US and Europe – all the more intensively since the expiration of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement in 2005.i Yet even while separated by distance, time zones and languages, Manop and Tamara and their respective co-workers reject this competition and fight against it. They are working together in a fresh form of international workers’ solidarity – a joint ‘sweatfree’ brand, called ‘No Chains’.

Worker solidarity is ‘built in’ to their model of business – because the workers of No Chains are joint owners and managers, as well as co-workers.

When the factory of one of them sells more clothes, it contributes to the profit and income of the other factory, and workers on both sides are motivated to learn about and support each other. They consider it a success to be joined by more workers rather than fewer. The two factories have an internal dynamic that is far different, if not opposite, from the ‘race to the bottom’ and brutal competition among workers at the bottom of the wage pyramid. What is behind this ‘built-in’ international solidarity? And importantly, how possible is it to be replicated by others?

The building block: internal democracy and equality:

The answer begins with the nature of their factories, and their factories’ relationship to each other: the two factories are producing cooperatively for a single brand of their own – ‘No Chains’. Under cooperative self-management, they are co-owners and co-managers as well as co-workers. Each of the factories have the following common characteristics:

1)the workers make all important decisions in assemblies with all the members

2)each member has equal say in the decision-making (one vote)

3)they divide the profit from the sales of their products equally among all the members

Each day that they work cooperatively and survive by their own management, they demonstrate to the world the possibility of production without exploitation, the possibility and manner of implementing a democratically run workplace. They reinforce the centrality of the workers as human subjects who should be free to determine the environment they work in and be allowed to own, and thus be motivated to treasure, the resources they use to work; and they reject being dehumanized tools for the creation of another’s profits.

Building up the cooperative so that it is a viable business is difficult; it involves fund-raising, trust-building, management, accounting and marketing. It is tough, yet alongside independent democratic unions, it is another form of democratic association of workers, but with some advantages, once established: it avoids the pitfalls of insufficient representation of workers, bureaucratization and partisanism which mainstream unions can easily get into; and it also avoids the intense repression and harassment that a union can face at the workplace from the employer.

Cooperatives may after some time settle down to being just a means of job creation for unemployed workers and mere subsistence; however these two are something beyond just this. At the same time as being cooperative workplaces, they are vessels of struggle, and trenches from which workers can do battle against corporations and government to defend their rights. They have themselves gone through fierce struggle against cruel and exploitative bosses to claim their rights as workers, and after establishing their own factory, have made it a centre of support for other workers who have no one else to help them fight against evil bosses. They take the role of the strike committee – ensuring the strike can continue, by taking care of the livelihood needs of the workers who are fighting, while persisting in the fight for justice.’

History

Doris Lee:

“How was the Thai cooperative able to encounter the Argentine cooperative? What would draw them together? They came together, initially, in March 2009, when Asia Monitor Resource Centre organized a meeting in Bangkok, Thailand focusing on Asian workers’ situations and responses in the face of an economic crisis.i It was at this meeting that a speaker from Argentina, Gustavo Vera, spokesperson of La Alameda (to be described more below), was invited, so that he could share about the workers’ experiences in the 2001 economic crisis in his country, which had been the victim of neoliberal economic policies that were just the type that Asian countries’ leaders had embraced in setting development policies. Such an exchange was a small step to bridging the experiences of workers in the countries of Asia and Latin America, which in many respects have deep parallels in terms of workers’ conditions, national economic policies, and democratic deficits.

Economic Crisis in Asia – 2008-2010

In late 2008, Asia was well in the midst of the global financial crisis and waves of mass layoffs has begun to take place in the main exporting Asian countries, and unions and workers facing intense pressure to accept wage cuts, contractualization, reduced hours, as well as slashed jobs. For instance according to a survey of the Indian Labour Bureau in 8 major sectors including auto, garments, gems, construction and IT/BPO, the total estimated employment had decreased from 16.2 million in September 2008 to 15.7 million during December 2008, implying a job loss of about half a million.ii Given the huge increase in vulnerable employment in the last Asian economic crisis in 1997-1998 in countries like Indonesia and South Korea, a similar impact was expected this time – as well as an attendant rise in poverty. In South Korea, 103,000 less workers were employed in January 2009 compared to the year before.

Economic crisis in Argentina, 2001-2002

Speaking to Asian activists, Gustavo described the 2001 Argentine economic crisis’ disastrous impacts on businesses and workers, and the concurrent disgust of the masses against the politicians and even unions. The country went through several presidents in just one month because politicians and the government had utterly lost the people’s trust; the middle class were shocked to find they could not withdraw any money from their accounts as the government tried to stop the flight of money from the country (the ‘corralito’); the unemployment has risen to as high as 30%; and workers knew well that if a worker lost her job, there was a high chance that she would have to stay hungry for a long time to come. Faced with no job prospects, fuelled with anger towards delinquent bosses and secure in their rights, workers began in waves to occupy their factories (‘recover’ them to the workers) which had gone bankrupt or tried to dismiss workers. This whole combination of factors contributed to a movement of factory occupations, and an ethic among occupied factories, of self-management and mutual consultation through joint assemblies. Several documentary movies have been made about this period and this movement; one of the most well-known is ‘The Take’ by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis. Workers had formed their own ‘assemblies’ (meetings in the community), taken over factories, formed community canteens to feed the unemployed and poor, and made their demands to the government in the streets. At the time there were over 200 factories run by workers in cooperative form, making decisions in worker assemblies and dividing work and profits equally. Nowadays, at least 150 worker-run cooperatives are still remaining in Argentina, and in the latest crisis, many would have easily arisen again, having gained the experiences of the last crisis. La Alameda, the worker assembly and activist organization of Gustavo, was one that had lasted from 2002 until now.

Possible lessons from the recovered factory and worker cooperative movement in Argentina

This model of a worker cooperative in which workers challenge the idea of needing a boss and support one another rather than compete, is not new in history,iii but it is one that has come to prominent worldwide attention in that movement that took off in Argentina in 2001-2002, known as the ‘recovered factories movement’.

In some circles, worker-run cooperatives are viewed with skepticism as a strategy for advancing workers’ rights, as their survival rate is very low; start-up may be easy as the machines and skills can easily be picked up, but they often cannot survive in the market. What Gustavo believed have been key factors to the success and continuity of cooperatives like La Alameda until the present were, besides the mutual business support among the cooperatives: 1) having a strong base in the community – particularly, responding to community needs that neither political parties nor unions were meeting; 2) staying independent from political parties and unions, which tended to draw people into their own organization’s demands and divide a community by using resources for those who ‘followed’, and 3) keeping the principles of democratic and transparent decision-making. Staying close to the community’s needs, ensures also that the community responds to the cooperative members’ survival needs. With these elements, they remain fighters in the local movement, staying relevant to workers’ struggle and contributing to it, not only relying on politically correct purchasing by the social movements.

While Asian activists felt sceptical of the possibility of using such tactics in Asia, they were also inspired and provoked; were there not precedents in Asia, or ways and chances to try such tactics? Gustavo reminded them that Argentina was no different from many Asian countries now, in the years before 2001; in other words, they should not be misled that Argentina was somehow an easy place or naturally suited place for workers to take over factories. It had the most neoliberal of governments, and admitted did have a workforce with stable rights and a tradition of unions, but it was through extreme crisis, repeated trial and error that humble workers dared to do out of fear of job loss and starvation, and the solidarity of the local communities that contributed to the relative success of the movement of recovered factories and worker cooperatives. These contributed also to workers’ possibility of using an ‘expropriation law’ and ‘temporary use’ orders granted by the courts, to allow workers to legally continue production in factories that for some time were without an owner. Legal rights were ‘wrested’ from the state through struggle. As Frederick Douglass has said, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’

The cooperatives decide to fight together for an end to slave labour in the garment industry

Upon learning of the Bangkok-based worker cooperative Solidarity Factory, which was renamed Dignity Returns, Gustavo Vera proposed that the factory join with his organization’s garment cooperative 20th of December, which is an arm of La Alameda, to form a global brand of worker cooperatives. Each factory already had their own ‘sweatfree’ brand, but forming No Chains would be a workers’ brand that symbolizes breaking free from the chains of slavery in the global supply chain. This international campaign would help them to extend and promote the local struggles they have been waging in their countries until now.

The two cooperatives have acted in their communities as a union of informal workers would: they have been a haven for workers who have been laid off or escaped exploitation and even beatings by garment factory owners. They have helped to protest, to counsel, and to fight together with workers who have no unions that would otherwise help them – each in their own country.

In Thailand, there are an estimated 2 million migrant Burmese workers of whom it is estimated that half are undocumented, who work for wages that can be as low as a third of the legal minimum wage in the ‘3D’ (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, construction and domestic work; and they are vulnerable to deportation at any time. Thailand is a country that remarkably employs migrant workers on a significant scale, yet also sends Thai workers abroad in large numbers as well. In Argentina, most of the migrant workers come from poor parts of Bolivia and work in hidden sweatshops; the Bolivian migrants also number about 2 million in Argentina.

La Alameda – the ‘exploiter-hunters’

La Alameda is the place, and the group, of activists and community in a part of Buenos Aires, which conducts a myriad of activities, in a former bar called La Alameda. The place was taken over by hungry workers and activists and the community set up a free canteen that fed 300 workers in the early days of 2002. Now it houses the 20th of December garment factory which has its own ‘sweatfree’ brand called Mundo Alameda. It has helped to establish the Union of Garment Workers, which is an informal union of garment workers that strive to win elections in formal garment company unions, in order to make them democratic and responsive to the mass of workers. It also constantly gives classes about union organization, migrant labour, the garment industry, labour laws, trafficking laws, home-based labour laws and other issues of exploited informal workers; and at the same time regularly protests at big brand stores against the use of migrant ‘slave’ labour – illegally trafficked migrant workers from Bolivia, usually, who are made to work in hidden sweatshops for 10-12 hours a day, for as little as US$10 a day and only allowed to ‘come out’ once a week. It also is the host to The Alameda Foundation, which with volunteer lawyers undertakes legal cases against exploiting factory owners, brothel owners, and farm owners using child labour on poultry farms. Very often the work that La Alameda does to rescue and legally help enslaved migrant workers is with the help of Bolivian workers who have been assisted before to escape their workplaces and become legally documented.

In 2008, the government attempted to amend a law dating from 1936, which placed responsibility for the working conditions of home-based workers on the final purchasing company; it was through constant efforts of La Alameda, its denouncements of big brands using trafficked migrant labour, that this attempt to remove responsibility from big brands was stopped.

The factory 20th of December currently employs about 12 women workers, many of whom are Bolivians that formerly worked in sweatshops. About ½ of their products are sold directly to customers under the label of their brand Mundo Alameda; and about ½ had been for other external customers that place custom production orders.

Dignity Returns

In Thailand, Dignity Returns has been a well-known worker cooperative which has struggled hard since their start, to stay viable, and also to help other laid-off or unjustly treated factory workers. Their struggle first began when 900 factory workers of Bed & Bath fought for months to gain just and legal compensation from their employer who had closed the factory and left suddenly, in 2002.iv For three months, 400 of the workers continued fighting at the Ministry of Labour, and they achieved more than cash compensation – they got a revised law on worker compensation that would benefit all workers in the country.

More recently in the last two years of economic hardship and increased multinational repression against unionized workers, Dignity Returns has had more occasions to respond to the calls of workers seeking justice and compensation from irresponsible capital. Triumph International announced 1,959 job cuts in its large garment factory in Thailand in 2009, to open another in a remote, non-unionized factory, supposedly due to economic hardship brought by the crisis. The strongly unionized Thai factory led by Jittra Cotchadet fought hard for eight months against the company, and even began their own production of lingerie while camped out in front of the factory and at the Ministry of Labour. Before this, when 41 Worldwell workers that were subcontractors to Triumph were laid off suddenly, Dignity Returns workers also helped them with a place to stay, advice for their struggle, and organization of a cultural festival to protest their layoffs.v

In short, the two worker cooperatives have played a significant role in providing a safe and helping space for exploited workers, in part because they are secure in their own livelihood and the freedom they achieved through struggle, and in turn as they have no ‘interest’ (not seeking to add to their own power) they have the trust of workers and the community. Furthermore they have engaged independent artists, academics, students, NGOs and the media, to enable them to extend their important movement-building role. They are well reported in local media

Stitching together – international solidarity includes sharing resources as well as decisions

In the process of working together to plan the joint brand, from T-shirt designs, to prices, to website wording and design, they have learned about each other’s culture, typical work environments, wages, and preferences. They have practiced true consultation and democracy, and equality: all income is shared equally and all expenses shared equally among the two cooperatives.

The labour costs of the Thai workers is far lower than that of the Argentine workers. Yet within No Chains, the profits of each factory from the sale of the T-shirts will be split evenly, truly bearing the principle that all workers’ labour is of equal value in this joint cooperative. Costs and profits are equally borne by all the members.

To promote the concept of cooperative-style decision-making and invite the cooperation and interest of the public, the ‘brand’ invites artists and designers from around the world to contribute their designs via a contest; each individual member of the two cooperatives then votes for their favorite designs. On this basis, six T-shirt designs on the theme of ‘No Chains’ were chosen, before the launch of the No Chains brand on 4 June 2010.

The No Chains group of cooperatives, right now only two to start with, intend to add worker cooperatives around the world who can produce clothes as well as other products – as long as they fulfil the criteria of open and transparent decision-making, with equal vote and equal share of profits. They will continue to hold quarterly contests to invite designers to design on themes that arouse public attention to the shameful continuation by global brands, of slave labour taking advantage of vulnerable people and lax legislation and enforcement.

‘Within a few years we want to have 20 to 30 cooperatives from different countries in the developing world,’ Gustavo has said. There are also plans to diversify the brand to other types of garments.

Consumer groups such as Clean Clothes Campaign have had important roles in raising awareness of the public regarding garment worker exploitation; and there have been attempts in the past to market clothing that is ‘sweatfree’. But No Chains is the first led by independent cooperatives: ‘This is the first time that workers coming from the world of slavery are coming together to denounce exploitation and prove that it’s possible to produce clothing under decent working conditions,’ said Gustavo.

The start of a global movement?

The race to the bottom in the garment industry pits Americans against Mexicans, locals against migrants, North against South, and perhaps most strongly, South against South. With the release of the MFA, which had the effect of spreading production somewhat evenly among different countries, there has been a continuing freefall, and ‘race to the bottom’ which seems to be never-ending. The global garment industry has long been equated with sweatshops, women workers and migrants. But in the age of high technology and neoliberal globalization, and added to this the intense level of Taylorism and minute sub-division of job roles and unprecedented mobility of capital. Garment factories close in one location and re-open in another name and another location in the same country, with total impunity, devastating workers. The accumulation of power by multinational capital and the division of workers makes the battle of workers for their rights seem completely unwinnable.

According to writer Robert J. S. Ross, author of Slaves to Fashion, decades have shown the weaknesses of past strategies such as codes of conduct and consumer labelling. He points to the following as the necessary measures for ending sweatshops: 1) strengthening unions, 2) government policies to hold companies responsible (rather than corporate-driven policies) and 3) working with reformers and consumers.

The strategy of No Chains cooperatives is a version of those recommendations. 1) instead of unions, the core actors are independent worker cooperatives, but the aim is still to strengthen organizing, especially of those with no unions at all; 2) the cooperatives fight for legal changes through their struggle – with the advantage that they are less vulnerable to political attack and job threat, because of their financial and political independence, and 3) working with reformers and the consuming public is built in to their very ‘business’ – all are invited to help in their fight, by buying their clothes and products, helping the cooperatives stay independent, taking away business from exploiters, and adding to the power of a workers’ movement led by the workers.

Moreover, the cooperatives have made extensive use of media and technology: they have several blogs and websites, a Facebook Fan Page, and online videos in several languages, which are being subtitled also in various languages. They have intentionally also used the strategy of the big brands – but for worker empowerment rather than selfish profit: to continually promote the brand of No Chains, and create an image which the general public would ‘pay more’ to own and wear.”