A journey of a bra does not begin at the department store but in the hands of petite women who are 100% committed to their jobs. What they get in return for their love of their work comes in white envelopes.
What do you consider when buying a bra? Quality, colour, fabric, or sexiness? No need to answer now. I want to first introduce you to three women.
Meet Thanyanun Praseotsang, 49, Yeung Kaewbuadee, 49, and Surin Hongklad, 52, the best assets of the factory. They are experts at sewing underwear for Body Fashion Limited (Thailand), producer and seller of underwear and swimming suits under the brands of Triumph, Valisere, Sloggi, Amo and Hom. All of them have worked for about 20 years, sewing more than 100,000 bras, panties and swimming suits. When asked what they liked sewing most, they answered “bras”.
Before moving their production base to Bangphli Industrial Estate, the first Body Fashion Unlimited factory was in Silom. At the beginning, it was built to produce underwear. The 150 new employees included Thanyanun. At that time, 22 years ago, they received wages of 28 baht per day.
“Do you know that making a bra takes as many as 40 steps?” Thanyanun, more experienced than the others, starts to explain about the production process. “It is not like one piece done by one employee; we divide our work according to different steps. Even a tiny bow attached to a bra still takes 3 steps to get done.
“It starts with our supervisor dividing the job into 40 steps. She will then see who is good at what and distribute the tasks accordingly, together with a time coupon or the amount of time for each task.”
“To sew a bra, you first make the cups and join them to the band, then add elastic, straps, a closure, then attach the number and so on. In constructing each cup alone, it takes several steps including placing the upper and lower cup pieces right side together and pinning at each end of the seam and at the dot or notch … God … too many steps,” Surin said. She got too tired to continue explaining as there were a lot of technical terms used.
“The most difficult part is to insert the underwire into the channeling of the bra.” Yeung is considered the expert at this particular task. By working on this, what she also got were crooked fingers.
“Too tight will not be beautiful, too loose is also not good. It must be well-balanced,” Yeung told us briefly as she does not normally talk much. Her friend had to interrupt. “Difficult or not you can see from her fingers that are now in such a crooked shape. It took her a long time before she went to see the doctor”.
The one who has just been teased confessed that she was scared that she might have to undergo surgery on her fingers. She was not scared because of pain but that somebody might steal her position while she recovered.
“There might be a younger worker who can work faster than me. The fact that I am now old, my energy has also reduced. So I have to stay strong. There was one time when my mom was sick and I had to take her to the hospital at night. In the morning I had to get my sister to take care of her as I had to rush to work at 7 am.” In a humble way, she said that all parts of the (production) process are essential because if one particular task is ruined, all the products will be returned for us to redo. It ruins the whole process.
“Even over-sewing lace by 1 mm, the work will be returned”. Thanyanun confirmed the intricacy and demand of the work.
In a year, these three senior women hardly took any days off. Surin used the words “even when you are sick, you must drag yourself to work”. For the best employee award, Thanyanun said that there was one time she woke up late and missed the bus from where she lived in faraway Rangsit. She had to take a taxi to Bangphli. “It cost more than my wages but I still had to come”, she said.
Do you still wonder why these three women are so diligent? Why do they love their jobs this much? If a worker has taken no sick leave or any other kind of leave and never reported late for work, they can earn 1,200 baht or receive a yearly pension of around 450 baht. The amount is not actually worthwhile but it is a result of the time coupon system of work that the factory practices.
Rushing to beat the time coupons
This time coupon system may sound like a lottery but actually because of this, the employees have become nothing but “lean and weak”.
The time coupon system basically means the worker’s wage is paid according to the wholesale price of a finished product. Each assigned task will come with fixed amount of time its completion. “For example, if we are tasked to stick on 20 bows with a 20 minute coupon, that means we have to get it done within 20 minutes. Each day, we have to do the task at this rate for up to the 480 minutes they assign. If we cannot match the given amount of time, we will only get the minimum rate (355 baht per day). But if we can, they will count the excess time at 1.03 baht per minute,” explained Boonrod Saiwong, Secretary-General of Triumph International Labour Union.
Workers who cannot finish the tasks within the fixed time get told off by the supervisor. At the same time, colleagues who are involved in the process will automatically put pressure on them too as the output of each worker also affect their work.
“So there is no surprise if you see some employees cry while sewing,” said Thanyanun.
Since this system stimulates employees to produce more because nobody wants to receive just the minimum rate, what everyone does is to rush to get their tasks done. They do not drink if they are not desperately thirsty and will hold off going to the toilet. They will not eat anything that will put them at risk of getting diarrhoea. At the lunch break, they keep working until a guard blows a whistle meaning they will just have to stop. For all these efforts, they are rewarded with kidney diseases, cystitis, pyelonephritis and stress.
In the making of a bra, each step requires high dedication, skill, lightness of touch, good concentration, and love for the job.
“If you do not love the job, you will not be able to do it. Each step is very detailed and the end result must look nice,” Surin said.
Beauty is increasingly demanded and accords to fashion trends, not excluding underwear.
“When we focus on making it more fashionable, the tasks also get more difficult and complex. It is more difficult to sew and patterns are never the same. Some stock orders come only in 2,000 – 5,000 pieces and are required to be done in 3 – 5 days. No matter how difficult it is, we have to speed up. This is totally contrary to the time coupons given to us which are never increased. This way, 480 baht per day is tougher to strive for. We often have no problem with bulk orders of more than 10,000 pieces because of the simple patterns we are familiar with,” Boonrod explains.
Persons who do not speak much like Yeung also could not help telling us that with this current system, hardly anyone gets to work on what they are really good at. “Once we are getting used to the work, our supervisor will move us to a different task.
“If we are used to the task, that means we will be able to finish quickly and they will deduct our time, or if they see that we can produce a lot, when new stock orders come, they will give it to different workers and deduct their time instead”. As long as this system continues, there will be tricky workers who will find a shortcut by trying to please the boss to avoid being assigned difficult tasks so that they will be able to negotiate more easily.
Happiness that workers never get to wear
In spite of the dire work situation at Body Fashion Limited, none of the factory workers wants to quit their jobs. The reputation and stability of the factory are of concern to them but there are also other reasons that are more important to them.
“Each bra that we made, we made with our hearts… not for the sake of merely making one. If we do not love the job, we will not be able to do it nicely. There is a kind of happiness when you see your end result come out nicely,” Surin revealed her feelings.
…Even if it is a kind of happiness that they will never get to wear.
“People who produce bras that are sold throughout the world have no chance of buying them for themselves because they are incredibly expensive. There are quotas for employees, but these are often of a different grade which are made in Vietnam. Otherwise, we have to wait for post season sales in department stores, but those are also not durable. Often the elastic will not last long”, Boonrod said.
Despite that, when we walk past the lingerie sections in department stores, we can not help smiling when we see our own work hanging there attached to such incredibly high price tags.
“We are like… Wow!! each of them costs as much as 2,000 baht. We feel proud inside that those are our work”, Thanyanun grinned.
Surin said, “We are happy just to look at them, hoping people who buy them would be happy like we are too”.
Today, out of the blue, the happiness of these four women and their other 1,954 colleagues has come to the end. They were laid off two months ago, the reason given being that the company has had to change their business structure worldwide.
At 1 am. on Friday 26th June, unlucky employees received bad news through mobile phone messages telling them to come to hear what the company had to say at BTEC, Bangna on Monday 29th June.
“When we arrived, those who came to hand us envelopes were soldiers in black uniforms, equipped with arms. Before entering the venue, they checked our bags. Even bottles of water were not allowed. Think about it, who would bring weapons? We did not even know why they told us to go there”.
The Secretary-General of the Triumph Labour Union added that 1,959 employees were put into 4 categories including 1) those who took leave, were absent or late for work 2) pregnant women 3) those who had been working for a long time, and 4) those who had occupational illnesses. Thanyanun, Surin and Yeung fell into the last two categories. Boonrod also faced the same fate as the Secretary-General of the Union.
“We used to calculate the cost of production for one bra starting from ordering raw materials to the cost of cutting. The average cost was 40 baht but they sell at 1,000–2,000 baht. Where does the difference go to? Normally each day one order produced no less than 1,000 pieces and there are all together 57 orders. Imagine how much profit they make,” Boonrod gave us the information.
Boonrod did not tell us the amount of compensation she got, but compared it to 40 good-quality swim suits. “All the effort that we had put in all the way was worth only 40 good-quality swim suits” the Secretary-General repeated.
Although they are no longer employees, today they still go to the factory. What has made it different is that now they can only stay in the front of the factory, setting up tents, protesting and demanding for justice.
When asked the classic question, “what will you do next?” they all shake their heads with mild smiles before saying that “(we have) no idea. Now we only do one thing, which is to look at the factory and ask ourselves how they could do this to us. That Friday we were still doing OT (overtime). There was no sign and out of the blue, they laid off us through mobile phone messages. Is 300,000 baht worth your whole life?”, Thanyanun asks back.
The interviewer could not answer but would like to ask again the same question:
What do you consider when buying a bra?
• No bra , No way
Not many people from the younger generation have a chance to learn that the journey of a bra does not start in the department store.
Suluck Lamubol is a 4th year student from the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. She is part of a group called ‘Food Not Bombs’ which is a loose-knit group of independent collectives, serving free vegetarian food to others including to those in the tents in front of the factory of Body Fashion (Thailand) Limited.
Normally the girl buys underwear at department stores especially those with special prices. But still she chooses based on the price, quality and brand. In the past, Triumph was one of the few brands she bought.
“Before that when I bought (bras), I was only concerned about the quality. But since I have come to know the stories from our sisters here, we started to question”.
Suluck’s question came from the average price she normally pays for a bra which is no less than 500 baht, compared to the daily wage a worker earns, which is 355 baht, and the fact that they got laid off by their employers claiming that they lost money in their business due to the financial crisis.
“When I came to learn of the cost of production from our sisters here, we became even more sceptical about where the difference between the 40 baht and 500 baht has gone to. Obviously not to the workers.”
Before that, Suluck used to think that if she did not like any products, she will just not buy or boycott them. “But having been able to participate in this protest, with this very problem the workers have faced, I learned that the problem is not whether we buy or not buy, but rather relies on the strength of the labour union and labour law. And it might not be only these workers working for this brand that face this particular problem.
Suluck confessed that “no bra” was one of the options she used to take. But it did not work for her anymore since they are still considered necessity. “In a capitalist world, we still need to consume. But what got me to think more was what else we could do to help the workers. This has brought us here and we carry back what we learned to share with our friends at our faculties”.
The result was -- “They still do not feel that the matter relates to them that much. They think it is still far away from them”. But for Suluck, at least she does know.
Published in Bangkokbiznews.com, 6 August 2009
Translated by Kwanravee Wangudom