In a country riddled with sweat- shops, last month's move by one Thai factory to halt years of union-busting was a breakthrough for both workers and industry. So why aren't the seamstresses of the Gina Form Bra factory who stitched silks and satins for Canada's top lingerie peddlers celebrating? Following months of cross-continental protest and a stern condemnation from the Thai National Human Rights Commission, the factory - whose customers included La Senza, Jacob and the Gap - surprised everyone by pulling the plug on its aggressive anti-union campaign. It has now publicly pledged to work with labour reps, reinstated the 38 employees arbitrarily fired last year and dropped its legal case against the union's exec.
"Basically, all the things the union was asking for have been agreed to and acknowledged by the company," says Bob Jeffcott, communications director of the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN), the Toronto-based anti-sweatshop group backing the Thai workers. "This is a moment when both boutiques, Jacob and La Senza, have an opportunity to prove that they have some respect for workers' rights by agreeing now to resume orders with these factories," says Jeffcott.
The Canadian companies fled the factory back in April, citing everything from problems with delays and pricing to the protests themselves, while activists pleaded with them to stay and influence their supplier to clean up its act. The Gap, targeted by protests, agreed early on to try to pressure factory management.
When retailers like La Senza yanked their orders, production lines quickly ground to a halt. A whopping 90 per cent of workers were sent home. "It's a desperate situation,' says Jeffcott. "That's why getting orders back in the factory is essential now."
But La Senza president Laurence Lewin is unsympathetic. He will only reiterate that his company has washed its hands of the situation. "There's no update. I don't deal with the factory."
Despite Lewin's cold shoulder, La Senza has actually been warming to worker rights of late. The company recently posted its first ethical code of conduct online, expounding, among other things, the virtues of freedom of association. An interesting development for a company that told NOW in April, when asked to comment on the Thai factory's aggressive anti-union campaign, that it "would not get involved in inter-union rivalries 10,000 miles away."
It's even assigned a new ethics adviser to oversee all factory inspections. Given that the code appeared online shortly before La Senza's annual shareholders meeting in July, Jeffcott questions whether the chain was just trying to pre-empt possible shareholder questions over its fraying reputation.
Regardless, MSN gives the company credit. La Senza's new code, it seems, is surprisingly strong - especially compared to the sea of retailers that stand by watery ethical standards riddled with slippery loopholes. "It has said some things that look good on paper. Now the real question is, how is it going to implement them?" Returning to Gina Form, says Jeffcott, could be the perfect test to prove it is serious.
But neither La Senza nor Jacob seems eager to discuss that possibility. Lewin refused to comment, and Jacob says it no longer has any need for the factory. "We only hired them at the time because we had quota problems with our usual suppliers," says Jacob spokesperson Jean François Vallion.
Asked if Jacob will use the factory again, Vallion says, "This (factory) is built to handle large-volume production, and Jacob is not as large as Gap, for instance, or Gina Form's other clients. We usually work with smaller-scale companies."
The Gap has just announced that it will resume ordering from the Bangkok factory and is even calling on all the brands that previously purchased lingerie from the factory, like La Senza and Jacob, to start having their silks stitched there again.
"Reopening of the factory will most likely depend on the participation of most or all prior buyers," says Sean Ansett, senior manager for global partnerships, from the Gap's San Francisco headquarters.
But if workers hold out for La Senza and Jacob, they may have a long wait.