After rare labour win, Thai workers see oppression in COVID case

When the Thai government in May ordered a Hong Kong clothing company to pay unpaid wages to 1,250 laid-off Thai factory workers, union leader Sia Jampathong knew the rare win would not be the end of the fight.

Jampathong, the president of the Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation of Thailand, soon had his fears confirmed.

On July 7, Jampathong, the factory union chairwoman, and four student labour activists were indicted for violating pandemic restrictions on large gatherings during a protest outside Government House in Bangkok last year.

Jampathong does not deny breaching the emergency decree on large gatherings. But he believes authorities are selectively enforcing the rules to keep the labour movement in line after scoring a rare victory in the Southeast Asian country, where workers have minimal protections against exploitation and abuse.

Thailand, which has been governed by former army officer Prayuth Chan-ocha since a 2014 military coup, keeps a tight rein on dissent, with authorities in recent years cracking down on labour activists and pro-democracy protesters.

“I think we kept patient for a long time. There were many months that we didn’t come out. It’s proof that the government failed to solve the problem. We had no other options, so we had to bring workers to meet the government.”

The case against Jampathong and his fellow activists comes after Hong Kong-headquartered Clover Group International was ordered to pay 281 million baht ($8.3 million) in back wages and severance to workers laid off from Brilliant Alliance Thai Global, which shut with a day’s notice following bankruptcy in March 2021.

Victoria’s Secret, which outsourced production of its lingerie to the factory, agreed to fund the settlement through a loan to the Hong Kong-based company. Clover Group International initially requested that the payments be made over a 10-year period, a strategy rejected by the workers.

In Thai labour disputes, workers often never see their unpaid wages or severance pay, even when courts rule in their favour. A study last year by the Worker Rights Consortium found that, in 31 similar cases in nine countries, more than 37,000 workers were collectively owed $39.8m.

Brilliant Alliance’s mostly female workforce, some of whom had worked at the factory for decades, were given just one day’s notice.

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