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Thailand's Poultry Workers Show the Way

Posted to the IUF website 12-Oct-2007

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This article by union journalists Gunnar Brulin and Malin Klingzell-Brulin was originally published in the journal of the Swedish Food Workers' Union Mål & Medel, Nr. 10/2007.

“They put up a picture of me at the factory gates for everyone to see. I was called a criminal who must not be allowed in,” says trade union leader Kulnipa Panton.

It was against the law. Kulnipa knew that and went to the police station to report it. Her picture was then moved to the guard’s hut inside the gates. But the instructions to the security guards were the same – don’t let her in.

She is definitely not a criminal, but a union leader who has become famous for her fight at the chicken processing factory Centaco on the outskirts of Bangkok. Kulnipa Panton was one of the founders of the Food Workers’ Federation of Thailand in April 2004, one year before the major conflict at Centaco. She was its first general secretary.

She was also one the founders of the trade union at the Centaco factory. Last November she was fired. A pile of legal cases are awaiting a hearing in the criminal court and the labour court. It goes both ways: She has sued the company and the company has sued her. This is not uncommon in Thailand. Union rights are often violated by employers, and the fight for better living conditions has to be conducted both in the workplace and in court.

It was in May two years ago that her union demanded negotiations on compensation for travel to work and a wage increase in line with the legally stipulated rise in minimum wages. All negotiating attempts failed. In June, 400 workers who were union members were locked out. For two-and-a-half months, they demonstrated outside the factory gates. Their fight awoke great attention in Thailand and even abroad. They got loyal support from the global food workers’ union IUF’s regional organisation in Japan and from trade unions in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The ITUC report on violations of union rights in 2006 includes an account of the violence, harassment and dismissals that the poultry workers were subjected to. The factory management allowed a provocateur into the factory to throw stones at them. One woman was injured and had to be taken to hospital. The locked-out workers were sprayed with chlorine compounds and chemicals that injure the skin and eyes, under the pretext that this was accidental in connection with watering plants. Union leaders were reported to the police for numerous offenses, including a violent “invasion” of the factory grounds, disseminating fale information and libel.

Throughout this long conflict, the union managed to stay intact. This was a great victory in Thailand, where only a percent or so of the workforce is organised.

The harassment continued after they returned to work in August 2005. Contrary to the law, the new management introduced new working hours and new wage deductions for union members who did not adhere to the new schedule. In November last year, 102 workers were dismissed – most of whom were active union members. The union appealed against the dismissals and the case was taken to the labour court. And this is how it has been going on since then, more harassment, new alleged offenses and new court cases.

“I go to the factory nearly every morning and stand outside the gates to talk to members. Tomorrow I’ll be there to tell them about meeting you,” says Kulnipa, who has been working on the production line for 20 years, cutting up chicken. Nowadays, she also has seminars on what happened during the conflict at Centaco and serves as a union advisor on dismissals, but she doesn’t get paid for that.

The case challenging changed working hours was won by the union, but they lost the case about allegedly having blocked the entrance after 102 workers were dismissed.

The new union president, Pranom Son Liew, was elected a week ago. Kulnipa has no union duties nowadays. According to Thai law, people without employment are not allowed to have union duties. There is not much legal protection for union representatives. The damages awarded in court are too low to serve as a deterrent.

Normally, workers who are dismissed on false grounds demand a settlement with the company. There is not much choice when the settlements are small and you have a family and kids to support. This is the case for Kulnipa, but she doesn’t want a settlement, she wants to fight. She wants her job back. Her case is far from concluded. But her chances of winning are minimal. Meanwhile, she gets by with temporary jobs. Sometimes she collects data for a prestigious financial institute in Bangkok. In her free time she chops vegetables that she sells in the market. The good thing is that new people have the chance to learn the trade union work at Centaco,” says Kulnipa.

We ask Pranom Son Liew, who has been sitting quietly and listening, if she is afraid of losing her job, now that she is a union representative. No, I’m not afraid,” she replies. “I’ve been under a lot of pressure before. We’ve lost our fear. We’re not even afraid of the company closing down.”

Pranom has worked for eleven years at the chicken factory, has two grown-up children and will soon be a grandmother. She works at the end of the line, monitoring orders. She has constant pains in three of her fingers, a repetitive strain injury that she thinks will require surgery.

The number of trade union members has declined since the union-busting started, but also because the company uses more contract labour and outsources production. Today, there are some 200 members. They used to be 500 among the 800 employees. When the company lowered the wages for union members, many chose to leave the factory rather than leave the union.

The important thing is that they made their way through it all. They still have their union, they have an intact collective agreement, they have not allowed themselves to be divided. They have defended their case in court, appealed for help from the Ministry of Labour. They have even brought a civil case against the employer before the national commission for human rights.

“In Thailand it’s hard to get organised and form trade unions,” says Kulnipa. “The hardest thing is to get a union to survive, because the employers use every possible means of harassing and humiliating the union.”

Thailand, now called "the world's kitchen", has become a leading export nation. Many businessmen and exporters have grown rich, including Bangkok’s middle class, but not the workers in the poultry industry: Kulnipa, Pranom and their colleagues.

They have to survive on a monthly wage of 5,200 bath (ca. USD 165), and while their company exports its products to the world they have to make do with chicken of inferior quality. They tell us that chicken up to two years old is sometimes thawed and mixed with fresh chicken and then sold to producers on the domestic market. The small chicken balls we see in Bangkok are often made of this cheap meat.

The Centaco workers’ struggle for their union has been important. When representatives of the Thai workers’ movement wrote an open letter to US President George Bush, demanding that the free trade agreement between nations should be based on the ILO conventions on union rights, their fight was a vital reference point.

Centaco is currently the only organized factory in Thailand’s enormous poultry sector, which includes large export companies such as CP Group, Betagro, Narai Interfood, Saha Farm and Grampian Foods. Centaco produced ready meals that are sold all over the world, including in Sweden, focusing mainly on restaurants and catering companies. Major Swedish ready meal producers such as Findus and Dafgårds import their products, often via a wholesaler such as British-owned Lamex with subsidiaries in Sweden.

The global catering company Sodexho is now formulating minimum requirements for purchasing processed chicken from Thailand. According to the Swedish purchasing manager Nicklas Hedin, the Thai companies offer products that are not available anywhere else on the market. Sodexho’s international regulations will be formulated this autumn at the head office in Paris. Requirements on animal welfare, product quality and the treatment of workers at the factories and farms will be rigorous, Hedin assures us. Contacts have already been initiated with the two major Thai suppliers, CP Group and Saha Farm.