(Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

The World’s Most Invisible Workers Plan to Revolutionize Labor for Millions

From Bangkok to Brazil, their role in groundbreaking international negotiations is influencing urban economies across the globe.

Story by Carlin Carr

Published on

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At 6 p.m. on January 9, 2003, seven Thai garment factory workers, well into a three-month-long struggle for due compensation, ceremoniously started in on yet another peaceful act of defiance. For two hours, as the chaotic capital city of Bangkok whizzed around them, the group sat in near silence outside the Ministry of Labor, the office they were hoping would rally to their side. They waited patiently as over 200 fellow protestors and supporters each took a moment to cut off a lock of hair. The hair cutting carried great cultural significance: In Thailand, hair represents the “the life your parents gave you,” explained one protestor. “If you cut it off, you cut off life itself.”

The small group’s act was part of a larger, round-the-clock call for attention and action being carried out by former employees of the Bed & Bath factory. They were demanding back wages and unemployment compensation owed to them under the law after their factory, which produced garments for major American brands such as Nike and Harley-Davidson, suddenly closed. Seven hundred stitchers showed up to work one day only to find the doors locked and the building abandoned. Rumors were that the owner had moved operations to an area on the border with Burma where labor was a fraction of the cost. The employees were left with nothing, not even their most recent pay, which nearly all of them needed to survive — a violation of Thailand’s Labour Protection Act of 1998.

The indignities dealt to the workers — first by the factory owners and then by the government that was supposed to protect them — brought the group closer together. Over the many hours, days and months spent demanding their rights, the workers subsisted on the generosity of market vendors nearby, who would offer ready-made fruits and dinners. They sang songs together, cared for each other’s children and, all the while, kept working. With borrowed sewing machines set up outside the downtown ministry, the workers continued to be productive.

As the protest made headlines across Thailand, workers’ rights activists showed up to support their cause and to educate the group about laws that existed and those that needed to exist. The demonstrations ended on January 31, 2003, after three months and 10 days of protest — and their struggle had not been in vain. The workers had persuaded the Employees Welfare Fund Committee to change its regulations regarding emergency assistance pay. Emergency assistance pay increased to 60 days of minimum wage to workers who had been employed at a company for over six years (doubling the previous compensation). The workers also won back pay for those who had not yet received it. In the end, the former Bed & Bath workers each received approximately 14,800 baht (currently worth about $422 U.S.) from the Employees Welfare Fund and 2,000 baht from the Department of Social Development and Welfare.

The win was just the first in what has become a much larger fight for some of the urban world’s poorest and most invisible workers, a fight that has produced achievements worth examining at a moment in time when world leaders are for the first time ever considering global standards for well-being in rapidly growing cities like Bangkok.

Village to Factory

Daily life at the Bed & Bath factory was grueling. Many workers were migrants from rural areas who had come to Thailand’s capital city seeking employment simply to feed themselves and their families. Manop Kaewpaka was one of them. At 18, he left his remote village in the remote northeast corner of Thailand and headed to Bangkok to study. It’s not hard to imagine Kaewpaka, now 35, topping his university class. He’s articulate, poised and extremely thoughtful. But life had a different path for him.

Manoj Kaewpaka stands with workers from the Dignity Returns factory, a worker-owned garment cooperative in Bangkok, Thailand. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

The city of dreams for Thailand’s rural poor was challenging in reality. For Kaewpaka, Bangkok was too expensive for someone with no savings or extra pocket money. All too quickly, he was forced to abandon his educational hopes for much-needed income. He joined the Bed & Bath factory in 1999, and although it’s been nearly 14 years since the factory closed, Kaewpaka still remembers the nightmarish conditions.

He had no idea what he was getting into when he first stepped on the factory floor, where he was surrounded by the hum of hundreds of machines at work. The factory had a written “code of conduct” that set out an eight-hour maximum workday; in reality, they would often be forced to work for three consecutive days without sleep with amphetamines doled out by the “weird and authoritarian” boss, recounts Kaewpaka. They were denied maternity, sick and personal leave and could have pay deducted for the slightest misstep: raising their left hand instead of right (500 baht), eating a lemon (500 baht) or even yawning (2,000 baht).

“We didn’t have a union, so we had no idea about our rights,” says Kaewpaka.

Despite the harsh conditions, Kaewpaka says he never once thought about quitting. For the young tailor and the hundreds around him, economic necessity outweighed any distaste for the environment. He was using every last bit of his 5,000-7,000 baht monthly salary to pay for a shared room and food, and to send money back home to help his family. “There was nothing left over,” he says.

Kaewpaka remembers sewing on tags to the global brands they were stitching together and realizing how much these garments were selling for on the market. “I used to wonder if consumers have the kind of imagination to think of the workers and what conditions they were going through,” he says.

The world would soon get a glimpse into the working life of urban migrant workers when Bed & Bath, without warning, shut its doors. Kaewpaka was among the leaders at the three-month protest. What he learned during that time was invaluable: that they weren’t alone. Factories across the city were treating their workers as “disposable commodities,” writes Piya Pangsapa in her 2007 book Textures of Struggle: The Emergence of Resistance Among Garment Workers in Thailand. According to Pangsapa, “eliminating production lines, firing workers without compensation, shutting down and relocating production to cheaper sites — all have become increasingly common practices in garment factories around the world.”

Rattana Chalermchai works with her husband, Mongkol, at home. Global supply chains are increasingly being fed by vulnerable, individual workers in their homes, rather than in factories. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

Workers across the country — especially those in the country’s vast informal economy, which Kaewpaka would soon become a part of — were struggling without the legal and social protection they deserved as valuable contributors to society. Kaewpaka was determined to tell the world their stories — what they had been through on a daily basis — and, importantly, to find other workers being exploited and include them in the fight. And he would start with those right around him. “The protests stopped, but, at the end, we had profound friendship and solidarity,” says Kaewpaka.

With that solidarity, a new factory, run by the workers themselves, was born. Forty former Bed & Bath stitchers, calling themselves the Solidarity Group, rented a four-story building in a small-factory zone on the outskirts of Bangkok and set out to show there was another way for the working poor. The tight-knit group formed a set of principles to guide the development of their workplace — “life, pursuit, faith, ideal” — a sign that continues to hang on a wall in an airy, open room with just 20 sewing machines.

“We want to be unchained from capitalism,” says Kaewpaka. “When we said that to officials, they said it was impossible, but we’re doing it.”

Phakhapon Khamkrachal works at a small garment factory on the outskirts of Bangkok started by the Solidarity Group. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

The worker-run factory started a label, “Dignity Returns,” and began to look for subcontracted work from suppliers looking for both high quality and the ethical treatment of workers. The cost of Dignity Returns-labeled clothing, primarily shirts and T-shirts, is four to five times higher than other factories in the area, but with that, the workers all make minimum wage, work just eight hours in a day and have humane working conditions. As a cooperative, the group pools and shares resources and profits, and many of them even live together on the top floor of the factory.

“We did this because we wanted to find what is best — what is most appropriate with our own hands,” says Kaewpaka. “We decided to work for ourselves and search for something that deserves us.”

Bringing greater dignity and rights to workers has topped the agenda of the Solidarity Group’s mission, but if they had learned anything during their three months outside the ministry, it’s that to be heard, they needed the power of numbers. So they joined workers like them through HomeNet Thailand, a network that supports informal home-based workers, many of whom were also former factory workers who had experienced the same demise of their livelihoods. As members of HomeNet’s Garment and Leather Workers Cooperative, the Solidarity Group met other home-based workers — those who do remunerative work from home or in a group near their homes. Some are subcontracted workers while others are self-employed. At the time, HomeNet leaders were working on policy changes that could have a transformative impact on these most vulnerable of the working poor.

Organizing an Invisible Workforce

Home-based work — a hugely invisible sector of Thailand’s and the world’s informal economy — is now a major part of global supply chains. The most recently available data from WIEGO estimated that in 1999 as much as 60 percent of global garment production, especially of children and women’s clothing, was done at home in both Asia and Latin America. Major brands are no longer just being produced in factory complexes like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where 1,134 workers died when their workplace caught fire and collapsed. The tragedy exposed many exploitations and violations in global garment supply chains that have increasingly become more invisible in the homes of workers.

It’s not only clothing being made at home though. Across industries, from food production to electronics, more firms are outsourcing production to home workers as a means of cutting costs, maximizing profits and increasing flexibility.

“We did this because we wanted to find what is best — what is most appropriate with our own hands. We decided to work for ourselves and search for something that deserves us.”

In Thailand, there are likely 2 million home-based workers, 5 percent of the country’s 40 million-person labor force. They set up sewing machines in small corners of modest, low-income homes where they essentially labor completely invisible to the outside world. Behind closed doors, these subcontractors are left on their own to negotiate with middlemen, who often cheat them of payment or provide loans with high interest rates, and suppliers, who provide poor-quality material and charge workers if the finished product doesn’t come out well. Many of these invisible garment workers have no sense of the value of their labor on the market and face challenges in negotiating alone. “These workers — disproportionately women — typically have the least security and lowest earnings among all the country’s workers, placing them among the lowest-paid workers in the world,” according a study by WIEGO.

The trend is not limited to Thailand; it’s happening across the globe. A 2012 study from India, for example, estimates there are 37.4 million home-based workers there. Of these, around 45 percent were involved in making garments or textiles. Whether in Delhi, Bangkok or Yangon, these workers often live in jarringly similar urban patchworks of makeshift housing and nonexistent infrastructure. They struggle with leaky roofs that ruin stock they are forced to store in their homes. Intermittent and unreliable electricity makes running sewing machines challenging. Lack of ventilation and light force home-based workers to toil in sometimes scorching conditions.

Last year, more than 100 home-based worker representatives from 24 countries and countless cities gathered in Delhi to share challenges and solutions. At the end, the group drafted the landmark Delhi Declaration — the first global declaration of home-based workers setting out challenges and demands, in their own words, on issues from wages and better housing to basic services and social protection. The 2015 declaration is part of a larger movement of urban home-based workers from cities across the world who are uniting to have their voices heard. For them, the quality of housing in their informal settlements and access to appropriate infrastructure is a major issue that they want to see more action on.

The Delhi Declaration has come at a pivotal moment. The needs of home-based workers have been consolidated into this important document that will act as a roadmap for the UN’s much-anticipated Habitat III convening in October. Habitat III will end with the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year plan intended to guide the world’s cities towards a more sustainable and equitable future. Already, groups like WIEGO have played key roles in the document’s creation and the first “zero draft,” ensuring that informal workers’ voices are heard. The document, issued earlier this summer, contained several important clauses that recognized informal workers’ rights, including their right to housing, basic services and public spaces. It also recognized informal settlements and the informal economy as “engines for economic growth, prosperity and job creation.” For people who have been left off the map for far too long, the nod of recognition is an important political signal: The international community is seeing them.

“I am happy with the progress in terms of recognition at the policy level,” says Poonsap Tulaphan, head of HomeNet Thailand. “There are statistics, the home workers’ law, the domestic workers’ law, the universal health coverage system and social security system for informal workers.”

Still, the battle hasn’t been won. Tulaphan notes there is still a large gap in protections when it comes to home-based workers.

“A lot needs to be done in terms of organizing other sub-sectors of informal workers to raise their voices for better social protection,” she says. In June, those voices were heard when home-based workers from around the world, including representatives from HomeNet Thailand, met in Geneva, Switzerland, to take their message straight to the world’s foremost labor-governing body. At the International Labour Conference’s (ILC) Discussion on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains, worker leaders voiced a list of demands, including broader needs for greater recognition and representation as well as more specific needs, such as more transparent contracts, fairer rates per piece and protection from harmful practices. Many of these same worker leaders will continue honing their messaging on inclusive cities for the Habitat III conference in October.

These workers will join informal worker leaders from organizations of waste-pickers and street vendors in a unified effort to advocate on behalf of informal urban workers across the globe. For the last five years, says Sally Roever, urban policies program director at WIEGO, these groups have been meeting and preparing lists of demands through “bottom-up, participatory processes.” She says that before PrepCom III in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July — one of several pre-conferences being held before Habitat III — WIEGO will hold a workshop where worker leaders can “discuss, revise and validate this joint platform, and exchange lessons on effective representation — based on their previous experiences at the ILCs, at previous World Urban Forums and other major convenings.” They will then launch the new, integrated platform of demands for informal workers in Quito.

Roever says that one important outcome they are hoping to gain in the New Urban Agenda is explicit commitments to informal livelihoods. “Often we see employment discussions focusing on ‘creating jobs,’ and while that’s certainly important, it’s also crucial to protect existing livelihoods.” She sees this as an opportunity to show governments that they can support existing livelihoods through formal partnerships, which have worked for organizations within WIEGO’s network. Through policy dialogues and platforms that facilitate problem-solving among governments and workers’ groups, “informal workers can participate in statutory bargaining forums where representative associations can negotiate with local governments as equal partners.”

For waste-pickers in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, who are also preparing for Habitat III, their main focus is that local governments see them as service providers. Sonia Dias, a waste sector specialist who has been working with waste leaders in Brazil and internationally, says that “local governments should work together with waste-pickers to not only recognize them as service providers, but also to establish agreements or contracts with cooperatives. The national solid waste policy in Brazil entitles waste-pickers to be hired as service providers so more municipalities need to comply with the law.”

(Listen to Suntaree Saeng-Ging of HomeNet Thailand speak at the ILC.)

Nikita Yadav makes decorative wall hangings from her small, dimly lit room in an Ahmedabad slum. Inadequate housing and infrastructure is a major obstacle to home-based workers. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage)

Teaching What’s Possible

HomeNet Thailand is growing its movement and expanding its reach. Kaewpaka and the Solidarity Group are leading the effort in their corner of Bangkok, teaching others “it’s possible.”

In fact, that is a key principle of the Solidarity Group: to pay it forward. They spend their Saturdays teaching Thai to the many Burmese informal workers in the hundreds of small factories that surround them. They want to show others that it’s possible to work in different conditions so they don’t have to endure the same hardships the Solidarity Group did.

“We’ve attained a decent life,” Kaewpaka says. “It doesn’t stop with just our group. We have to share what we’ve learned with others.”

This piece is part of a series of reported articles and op-eds that Next City is publishing related to preparations for the United Nations’ Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016. With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we’re covering the critical issues at stake on the road to creating a “New Urban Agenda,” and hosting events at PrepCom III in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July 2016, and in Quito.

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change.

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