Despite the inclusion of nondiscrimination protections based on nationality in Thai labor law, Mae Sot is known as a black hole of labor abuse for the many Burmese migrant workers who produce apparel there. Burmese workers in Mae Sot face a range of workplace violations that often go unreported and uncorrected due to their status as migrants. In 2019, the minimum wage for garment workers in Mae Sot was 310 Thai baht (US$10.15)1, but most migrant workers were paid well below that rate. In addition, Burmese workers face poor factory conditions, uncompensated overtime, and are not provided a weekly day off to rest. Since migrant workers can find better employment opportunities in Thailand and are able to send money to their families, they are hesitant to speak out against poor treatment. Factory owners further exploit migrant workers2 by offering short-term contracts that can easily be terminated or not renewed if workers advocate for themselves. In the Worker Rights Consortium’s recent investigation of the Kanlayani factory,3 the troubling labor dynamics for Burmese workers in Mae Sot were on full display with negative consequences for the workers involved.
Kanlayani factory was a small factory, located in Mae Sot, Tak, Thailand, that employed 44 Burmese migrant workers. The factory produced aprons and small bags for Starbucks, as well as children’s clothes for Disney, NBC Universal, and Tesco. In September 2019, a story published in Reuters revealed that migrant workers at Kanlayani, who made goods for Starbucks, were being paid less than the daily minimum wage of 310 Thai baht (US$10.15).4 Two weeks later, Kanlayani factory suddenly closed after Starbucks pulled its orders, and the factory laid off its staff without paying the severance they were legally owed, denying the workers vital resources just months before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though they produced apparel for large international brands, the migrant workers employed at Kanlayani faced poor treatment and violations of their labor rights before the factory closure. In an August 2020 interview with the WRC, three female migrant workers explained, “we were paid lower than the Thai minimum wage, [and we] worked seven days a week, often 15 hours a day without payment of overtime pay. We did not have holidays, and we had to work hard to meet high [production] targets. The factory was like a chicken coop, small and very dirty…” The workers understood, however, that as migrant workers they had few options but to accept these conditions. One worker stated,“I know that I get a wage lower than the Thai minimum wage and that most factories in Mae Sot do not pay the minimum wage, but we came to work; if we refuse work, we will starve.”
Life after Kanlayani closed was no better. The workers reported:
We are facing hardship after being unemployed because we cannot find a new job due to our name and photos being sent to other factories by our former employer, and the employment situation being aggravated by the epidemic, what little work there was dried up. We can buy food and other necessities on credit… but this is limited since we became jobless and because of the situation of Covid-19. We still had to get a loan that made us have more debts. To save money we picked morning glories in the fields, bamboo shoots, and other vegetables to cook and eat with chili paste. After we picked bamboo shoots, the villagers put up signs telling us to stay away.
Despite these difficult circumstances, 26 workers from Kanlayani bravely stood up to demand that their rights to severance be respected. The workers connected with local organizations, Arakan Workers Organization, Human Rights and Development Foundation, and MAP Foundation, as well as the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) in an effort to demand their severance through Thai legal processes.
In December 2019, the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare (DLPW) awarded the workers 3.464 million Thai baht (US$110,000) in severance. Their former employer ignored the DLPW’s order and brought the case to the court, which is well known to use a mediation system that disadvantages workers in negotiations with their employer, and, in most cases, compensation is paid at a rate that is lower than what is required by the law. In the fall of 2020, after nearly a year, the 26 migrant workers were pressured to take a deal to receive 30 percent of what they were owed from the factory owner, who claimed bankruptcy, and, with few other options, they agreed to accept and turned to the brands who sourced from the factories to make them whole.
Parallel to the court proceedings, the CCC and WRC had heavily engaged the brands regarding the strong likelihood that the workers would not be made whole from the legal process and had stressed the need that the brands take additional steps to rectify the violation at Kanlayani.
Tesco was the first brand to recognize the workers’ claim and paid out a sum of 736,000 Thai baht (US$23,372), more than any other brand, on November 5, 2020, the day after the migrant workers received the 30 percent from the factory owner. This action encouraged other brands implicated in the case to also contribute funds to make the workers whole. Twenty-two days after Tesco, Starbucks agreed to pay 600,000 Thai baht (US$19,053). In December 2020, Disney agreed to pay of 600,000 Thai baht (US$19,053). Finally on March 18, NBC Universal paid the 26 workers the remaining 489,186 Thai baht (US$15,540) they were owed. NBC Universal contributed these funds after further engagement from the United Students Against Sweatshops and Workers United. In addition, both Tesco and NBC Universal provided some additional funds to MAP Foundation to assist other migrant workers in similar circumstances.
To the WRC’s knowledge, Kanlayani is the first case in Mae Sot, where workers actually received all their due wages and severance, setting an important precedent. For the workers in Mae Sot, this money is a vital lifeline during the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to one worker, “the money from brands meant so much for us; we have money to pay for our food…for rent, to send to our family in Burma and to pay for the debt that we borrowed when we were jobless. We also donated some money to help other Burmese migrant workers facing hardship who work in Mae Sot.”
Although the workers faced an uphill battle due to their status as migrant garment workers, their willingness to push back against unjust treatment—in addition to support from local and international partners—and critical intervention from the brands allowed them to obtain the severance they were legally owed. The Kanlayani case is another pertinent example of the importance of global garment brands meeting their obligations to their workers and making them whole when their suppliers refuse to pay them severance and wages.
1 1 US dollar = 31.49 Thai baht.
2 Nanchanok Wongsamuth, “Exclusive: Thai garment factory investigated by Starbucks after illegal wages expose,” Reuters, September 4, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-workers-wages-idUSKCN1VQ00F.
3 The Kanlayani factory was relatively small and informal and, therefore, did not have an official name. Kanlayani is the name of the factory owner.
4 Nanchanok Wongsamuth, “Exclusive: Thai garment factory investigated by Starbucks after illegal wages expose,” Reuters, September 4, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-workers-wages-idUSKCN1VQ00F.