The Solidarity Factory was created as a workers’ cooperative by ex-employees of Bed and Bath. They were made redundant without being paid any compensation as required by Thai law. This company produced brand named clothing for export. The company produced for Nike, Adidas, Gap, Reebok and UMBRO, brands which are supposed to be covered by a Code of Conduct in employment. Yet, the company never complied with any Code of Conduct and treated its staff like slaves. Working hours were often as long as 60 hours of continuous work. Employees were given addictive drugs to keep them awake. Deductions were made from earnings without due cause. Employees found eating lemons were fined 2000 baht. Those caught yawning were fined 500 baht. Often workers were physically abused and they were not allowed to form a union. In the end the factory was closed without paying owed wages or compensation.
During the months of protest, the workers supported themselves by selling flowers and making cotton clothes for sale. With 7 sewing machines, they started a small "factory" in front of the Ministry of Labor, where they produced banners, shirts, and bags. The workers carried out all of the steps in the process themselves – from product design, to choosing and purchasing fabric, to sewing and embroidering patterns on the garments, In addition, they silk-screened shirts with images of themselves marching in protest, along with the motto "Dignity is not for sale." The workers made all of these products under the label "Made in Unity" – a brand they created.
The demonstrations ended on January 31, 2003 – a day that will be remembered for the workers’ success in persuading the Employees Welfare Fund Committee to change its regulations regarding emergency assistant pay. Previously, workers had been entitled 30 times the minimum wage; after the protest, emergency assistant pay increased to 60 days of minimum wage to workers over six years of work. The workers also won back pay for those who had not yet received it.
October 2002 – January 2003 : for 3 months and 10 days, 350 workers had protested in front of the Ministry of [Labor]. They represented 800 workers from Bed and Bath factory who were laid off without paying or severance when the factory had been closed and its manager fled the country. Gathering at the Ministry of Labor, these workers demanded the rights guaranteed to them by law.
In the end, the former Bed and Bath workers each received approximately 14,800 baht from the Employees Welfare Fund and 2,000 baht from the the Department of Social Development and Welfare.
A Dream Factory
After the demonstrations, a number of the workers looked for work in a new factories. Many others felt that they no longer wanted to subject themselves to the condition they had experienced in the past – both in the factory and the capital city in general – and returned to their homes in the countryside.
At the same time, 40 of the former Bed and Bath workers got together to form “Solidarity Group” and a small factory of their own. Together, they borrowed 700,000 baht from the Government Savings Bank and received additional support from friends and sponsoring organizations. With this money, they bought equipment and started the factory. The factory would produce products under the group’s label: “Dignity Returns” They opened on February 27, 2003.
“The Solidarity Group” and their factory were established as a result of the experiences of workers who did not want to return to the exploitative conditions they had faced in the past. The establishment of the this new factory fulfilled the group’s dream to create a working space owned and run by workers. A Factory that free from oppression, exploitation, and the threats of bosses. The group hopes that one day they will have their own brand, financial security and enough income to support projects that benefits other workers, particularly those in need.
…I know it will be difficult, but we’re trying with all our hearts to make it a reality. we will prove ourselves.” ~ Wiset Saramano, Member of the Solidarity Group.
As the factory is still in its infancy, it has not gained much exposure and therefor has only a small number of order coming in. Although the factory has coordinated with workers unions and other organizations to make banners, headbands, bags, and other items used in protests and seminars, the income from this work does not fully cover the factory’s expenses. These expenses include rent, water, electricity, and loan payments of several 100,000 baht a month.
Another difficulty is the fact of being a small factory with little capital; the group cannot take advantage of economies of scale by buying in bulk. As a result, they cannot compete with large factories with regards to pricing. These issues remain obstacles, despite the group’s confidence in their abilities and products.
Today, the Solidarity Group still has to cut, sew, iron and pack clothes for other factories rather than working directly with the end client. In some case, there is a chain of middleman between the Solidarity Group and the client, each taking a cut of the revenue.
…Each piece of clothing that we take from other factories requires 20-30 steps to complete. However, we receive only 16 baht per piece – a very low sum. If we can work directly with the client, our situation should be improved…” ~Sunee Namso, Member of the solidarity Group.
It is friendship that holds this factory together – friendship among people who have struggled together since their days at Bed and bath, through 3 months of protests at Ministry of Labor, to their on going work to create a viable factory of their own. Their desire to make this factory a reality gives them the energy to go on and to avoid discouragement – even when some say that the work in their own factory is as hard as that any other factory. However, the members of Solidarity Group realize that work in this factory is different because it is not only the work toward their own dream but also the goal of benefit of workers in general.
…Sometimes people outside say that we still to work hard – it’s no different than working in the old factory. but we know that it is different. In this place, there is no boss hanging over or taking advantage of us. There is no threat and insult. Most importantly, we are in a factory of our own…” ~ Manop Kaewpaga, Member of the Solidarity Group.
Since February 27, 2003 a number of the workers in The Solidarity Group have had to leave the factory for personal reasons or economic difficulties. At this time there are 16 members of the initial group remaining.
The reward for the group’s hard work and saving is that they have paid off their bank loan and interest a total 875,280 baht. In addition, they have almost paid off the remaining debts to other lenders.
The primary obstacle facing the group now is getting their work out to where it can be seen and appreciated by many.
The Solidarity Group’s “dream factory” for workers is becoming more and more of reality everyday. They have worked through obstacles that once seemed overwhelming through hard work and perseverance. The main issue today is the extent to which this small factory can make its known.
A plan for stability and survival
To allow the Solidarity Factory and its members to survive in a climate of economic crisis. During this crisis the factory has faced many challenges including the variation in energy prices, inflation and the effects of the global financial crisis. Small factories like the Solidarity Factory cannot avoid such economic effects. The Solidarity Factory has attempted to review and make changes to the organisation and management in order to survive this crisis. But we cannot do everything on our own and need help from those organisations which are willing to aid us. We hope that with such assistance we can weather the economic storm.
The workforce finally rose in protest to demand their rights according to the law. But the government refused to force the company to obey the law. After 3 months, the workers stopped fighting. Many did not want to go and work for another boss in another factory ever again. So the Solidarity Factory was born. Our slogan is “A Factory by workers, for workers”.
What The Solidarity Factory hopes to achieve
In order to provide a living wage for members in accordance with the present economic situation. To reduce working hours to 8 hours per day. To make the Solidarity Factory a place of refuge for sacked workers, the unemployed and victimised trade unionists. To allow workers time to take part in political and social activities which are beneficial to workers. To turn the Solidarity Factory into a learning and help centre for Thai and migrant workers. To provide an example to other workers who wish to set up cooperatives.