2008-2009: Thai Union President fired
On 30 July 2008, Body Fashion Thailand Ltd. (BFT) fired Triumph International Labour Union president Jitra Kotshadej for wearing a political T-shirt. In a show of solidarity, some 3,000 workers protested her dismissal and demanded her reinstatement.
She wasn’t even wearing the T-shirt at work; it was the T-shirt’s confrontational message that got her in hot water: “Those who refuse to stand are not criminals. Thinking differently is not a crime.” This refers to the government’s suppression of political opposition and the right of people to refrain from standing during the national anthem.
Kotshadej wore the T-shirt during her 24 April appearance on a late-night TV debate on women’s reproductive rights. She was speaking in her capacity as a private individual and was not representing BFT but she was dismissed anyway with the labour court never offering her a chance to defend herself.
BFT’s management argued that Kotshadej had defamed Triumph’s reputation by wearing the T-shirt on TV.
Triumph International is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of intimate apparel. The workers at BFT, a subsidiary of Triumph International, produce the lingerie and bras that bear Triumph's name. They are proud of their work – and their union.
The Triumph International Labour Union (TILU) is one of the strongest unions in Thailand, with over 1,300 member, representing 70% of BFT’s workers, the majority of whom are women. The union views the dismissal of their president as a veiled attack on the union, which successfully negotiated a collective bargaining agreement this summer. As one union member noted: “The relationship between the union and the company is not a smooth one.”
Despite several meetings between the union, factory management and government officials, no agreement has thus far been reached. In a letter to the CCC dated 8 August, Triumph’s Swiss headquarters announced that it would reject any agreement that included Kotshadej’s reinstatement. It reiterated its stance in a leaflet distributed among striking workers on 13 August.
But later, in response to CCC pressure, Triumph announced that it was planning to agree to the workers’ three chief demands. But then Triumph suddenly issued a counter-statement declaring its unwillingness “to discuss reinstatement of the former employee at this time”.
TILU responded by presenting Triumph with a petition signed by 2500 union members in support of Kotshadej’s reinstatement. Triumph chose to ignore the petition.
On 27 August 2008, the CCC responded with a letter-writing campaign calling on Triumph to respect both human and trade union rights and demanding the immediate and unconditional reinstatement of Kotshadej in response to her basic human right of freedom of expression, which is an essential aspect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises that lays down the labour and consumer principles companies should abide by.
The CCC further demanded the unconditional reinstatement of striking workers with back wages and urged BFT to engage in negotiations with the union to discuss BFT’s anti-union tactics.
For 45 days, from July 30 until September 13, over 2,000 BFT employees went on strike to demand reinstatement of their union president. Triumph did not agree to her reinstatement but did agree that her case be tried in the Thai courts if strikers agreed to end their strike.
Union members, fearing for their jobs and under extreme financial pressure, had no other option than to sign the agreement. The Clean Clothes Campaign remains concerned about the company's commitment to uphold its Code of Conduct, which explicitly includes freedom of expression and freedom of association. “Triumph should stop misusing the courts and simply make good on its promise to protect freedom of association and expression,” said Tessel Pauli, the CCC’s Urgent Appeals Coordinator.
Meanwhile, thousands of labour activists and consumers joined the workers in their 45-day strike to show solidarity with their cause. Triumph, in response, eventually promised to reinstate the workers without seeking disciplinary action and offered them 5,200 Baht compensation (the equivalent of 15 days wages). Triumph International also guaranteed the strict implementation of its Code of Conduct at Body Fashion Thailand. Meanwhile, some union representatives reported that BFT had indeed retaliated with strikers not being assigned jobs during slower periods. Other union members reported verbal abuse by supervisors and a stricter leave policy.
On 23 September, the Thai courts agreed to retry Kotshadej’s case regarding her reinstatement. But the company failed to inform her of the retrial until the very day they fired her and denied her right to return to her job as she awaits the retrial on November 17.
On 27 November, the CCC followed up with a new press release announcing that a Bangkok Labour Court had given Triumph Factory the green light to violate human rights by upholding Kotshadej’s dismissal. The CCC’s Tessel Pauli pointed out that “By suing a union president … BFT denies the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Although the company has every right to distance itself from Ms. Kotshadej's personal opinions, it has an obligation to support her right to express them.”
The CCC has expressed concern with how Triumph abuses the legal system to punish a union leader. Pursuing legal action discourages workers from joining a union, with most workers having neither the financial resources nor the time to pursue lengthy court cases.
In January 2009, the CCC reiterated its demands for Kotshadej’s unconditional release and reinstatement and protested against BFT’s attempts to limit union rights and discriminate against union members. The union and CCC have repeatedly urged Triumph to take a more active role to ensure that BFT respects international labour standards, fundamental human rights, and Triumph International's own Code of Conduct, which explicitly backs Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." The Code also explicitly supports freedom of association and prohibits acts of anti-union discrimination as set out in ILO conventions.
During their European trip, Wongsombat and Jaikla visited Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland to press Triumph to ensure compliance with its Code of Conduct, international labour standards and basic human rights. They met with labour activists, NGOs and trade unions and participated in seminars and conferences.
On their final day they met with Triumph representatives at its Swiss headquarters. Triumph repeated that it expected its factories to implement the standards set out in Triumph’s codes of conduct but refused to accept responsibility for actual implementation and monitoring.
Two meetings between union and BFT representatives took place in October. BFT promised to address issues regarding discrimination and harassment, but did not commit to any concrete actions. BFT management also agreed to begin an investigation into reported BFT involvement in anti-union acts during the strike and reports of corruption. However, BFT refused to include representatives from Triumph International and the German Triumph Works Council in the investigation, the union fears that investigation will not lead to any just resolution of the current stalemate.
Profile of Wanphen Wongsombat
On 23 September 2008, the CCC issued a press release welcoming Triumph International Thailand Labour Union (TITLU) representative, Ms. Wanphen Wongsombat and Ms. Premjai Jaikla of the Thai Labour Campaign to Europe. They were here in part to urge Triumph to comply with its own code of conduct, international labour standards and basic human rights.
Wongsombat began working at BFT as a production seamstress in 1995. She joined the union in 1996, and was soon elected as a union committee member. Wongsombat participated in the final round of bargaining in July as a key negotiator. When Kotshadej was dismissed in July, Wongsombat helped organise the mass protests demanding her reinstatement for which she received numerous anonymous telephone threats warning her of possible bodily harm if she continued her organising activities. Just before her trip to Europe she bgan receiving death threats.
She also endured the harrassment of BFT’s management at work. While she was in Europe, the company spread malicious rumours that she was enjoying her holidays in Europe at the expense of her fellow workers or that she was calling for a Triumph boycott to effectively close down the factory.
The union finally ended its protests because the Ministry of Labour demanded an end to the strike and threatened to arrest union members if the strike continued.
The Ministry of Labour initially agreed to provide laid-off workers with sewing machines, set up savings accounts to help support their careers, provide space within the Ministry for workers to sell their goods.
But eventually a successful outcome was brokered. The striking workers eventually managed to reach an agreement with BFT’s management in September 2008. Workers who wanted to return to their jobs were provided with some compensation. BFT would not object to retrial, while the union would not demand reinstatement beyond the court’s mandate. Moreover, BFT agreed to implement Triumph’s code of conduct.
Union representatives agree that the dialogue between the union and management has improved significantly since September 2008. BFT has agreed to take the unions new recommendations seriously.
Triumph, however, never played a positive and constructive role in the negotiations to reinstate Kotshadej and, unfortunately, Triumph employees in both Thailand and the Phillippines continued to encounter the threat of mass dismissals a year later.