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Thai, Argentine ex-slave workers launch global sweatfree garment brand: NO CHAINS

From two corners of the world, Thailand and Argentina, two groups of workers have joined to make their own common call to arms: no more chains in the garment industry! Dignity Returns in Bangkok and La Alameda in Buenos Aires jointly call upon consumers and activists alike to support decent work in the garment industry – by supporting their global sweat-free brand, No Chains.

Unlike for other famous clothing brands, those who buy No Chains products gives 100% of the reward of the labour to the workers – there is no trade more ‘fair’ than this. 

More than fair trade – a fight against continuation of sweatshops

Yet this brand is something more than ‘fair trade’ - it is an invitation to contribute to the never-ending struggle for workers’ rights.

Long hours, low pay, hazardous conditions, abusive bosses, and workers’ repression have remained defining characteristics of the global garment production. In 1911, 146 workers, mostly women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York because of locked exits and poor safety measures. 

A century later, chains of subcontract garment production extend beyond New York to cities such as Bangkok and Buenos Aires, and yet the basic slave conditions endured by garment workers remain entirely unchanged. 

The workers who formed Thailand’s Dignity Returns cooperative were all unfairly dismissed employees of Bed and Bath, a sweatshop facility that forced members of its production teams to consume amphetamines so that they could work consecutive shifts, while fining workers’ several days wages for sneaking bites of food during long periods when breaks were not permitted. 

In Argentina, many Bolivian workers have been rescued by members of the La Alameda cooperative, which has denounced the sweatshop owners for their illegal detention of entire families of migrants that work under slave conditions in clandestine home factories. 

With dozens of such migrants dying trapped in a factory fire in 2004 in Buenos Aires, it is clear that Triangle Shirtwaist’s tragedy has only repeated itself at every step along the global chain of subcontract garment production.

Experience clearly shows that no improvement in workers’ conditions can be meaningful and lasting without worker representation, either through genuine unionization or through worker-ownership. The workers of No Chains know this from their own lives.

The No Chains concept is born -links workers in Asia and Latin America

NO CHAINS workers want to share their simple message with the world: it can be done! Production of quality garments can occur without exploitation, with workers controlling their own management and production.

The concept of No Chains was born when two cooperatives met at a 2009 Bangkok labour conference about workers’ responses to economic crisis. Gustavo Vera from La Alameda had been invited to share the experiences of Argentine workers in 2001 who occupied factories when their management left them bankrupt and unpaid. 

La Alameda in Argentina and Dignity Returns in Thailand thus agreed to jointly launch a global brand of sweat-free clothes, calling upon both consumers and social movement groups to help end slave labour in the garment industry. Both cooperatives were already well-known for being composed of seasoned workers who had faced forced labour conditions and now fought for the core values of worker self-management, solidarity, and decent work. 

Now, the workers form a unique venture between Asia and Latin America. Though they are continents apart, they share common problems of democracy, social inequality, and poverty and exploitation of workers, especially of migrants.

Tale of Two Cities:  No Chains Launch on June 4, 2010 

In Buenos Aires and Bangkok, the models of T-shirts will be displayed in a simultaneous launch event linked by videoconference technology, on June 4, 2010. The T-shirt designs that will be presented were made by designers from South Korea, Indonesia, U.S., Hong Kong and Argentina, and were chosen by the workers in an open global design contest earlier this year. 

The launch will be on Friday, June 4 at 8 p.m. at the factory of Dignity Returns in Bangkok and 10 a.m. in the factory of La Alameda in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Performing at the BANGKOK Launch

Formed in the wake of the tragic 1993 Kader Factory fire, Paradon is the only all-female workers’ band in Thailand. A familiar fixture of strikes and other protests throughout the country, the band takes its name for a Thai word for “fraternity” or “sisterhood,” playing songs that celebrate labor solidarity. Paradon’s powerful brand of music and activism continues in a rich tradition of the “Songs for Life” that have mobilized ordinary Thais in their struggles against worker oppression for the past half century.

Formed in 2010 by unfairly dismissed Triumph International (The Body Fashion) Thailand garment union members with decades of sewing experience, the Friends for Friends cooperative produces sweat-free eco-bags, clothing, and underwear of excellent quality for both domestic and international markets.

Dignity Returns welcomes the music and performance of a neighborhood Youth Group to the No Chains launch festivities. On many public holidays throughout the year, the Dignity Returns factory has served as a hub for sports events and food festivals for the local community, which consists mainly of workers employed in various sweatshops scattered throughout the area. 

Common questions about No Chains
 
How is No Chains different from other brands?
In No Chains, the producing factories have matured through their efforts to survive while keeping their internal democratic nature as well as external solidarity with other workers in struggle. They demonstrate that there is no reason that exploitation and sweatshop conditions should be condsidered ‘necessary’ parts of today’s garment industry.
 
What is a worker cooperative?
There are different ways to define a worker cooperative, but in the view of No Chains, the chief criteria are: 
1. Workers have no other boss, but own and manage the business themselves, and make significant decisions in an assembly together and equally.
2. Workers divide profits openly and equally
 
In addition to the above criteria, cooperatives that join No Chains will be those that actively support other workers’ struggles, whether by helping to form or to defend independent trade unions or by helping other worker cooperatives.
 
How No Chains will support workers’ struggles?
There are several ways that No Chains plans to support the movement of workers against slave labour, or exploitative work, in the garment industry:
 
1) No Chains acts as a living model of self-management by workers – the possibility of it, and of producing good quality clothes at reasonable prices, while having decent work conditions. The No Chains cooperatives will encourage formation of other self-managed worker cooperatives, for example by laid-off workers, including training and advice for them.
2) No Chains will provide material means for the member cooperatives to keep up their fight and support for workers’ rights – for example, sheltering and helping laid off workers fight for their jobs. It will strengthen their capacity to remain independent and uncompromising in supporting workers’ rights.
3) No Chains will use the brand – the profile and image in the public eye – to highlight workers’ issues to the mainstream public. For example, it can make T-shirts with designs on the theme of the struggle, and publicize news on the No Chains website. At each season’s launch of new designs, it can highlight current issues in the global garment industry through video or photos.
4) Creating a brand which draws workers and consumers away from dependence and sustenance for the exploitative rest of the garment industry, and which can fuel momentum for effective legislation against sweatshops and exploitative brand owners.
 
How can a union or worker cooperative join No Chains?
To join No Chains as a producer, one must be a worker cooperative that meets the criteria stated above. After a certain level of T-shirt sales have been achieved and the model of cooperation in No Chains has been stabilized, new worker cooperatives will be invited to join, and in each case, the decision will be taken jointly by all the members of No Chains.
 
However No Chains welcomes all groups of garment workers in the world to share their struggles in reports, photos, and videos, which No Chains will try to publicize through its website and other activities. 

Will you make only T-shirts?
No, T-shirts are just our products to start with. It will start by adding on other garment cooperatives, but in the future we plan to add on cooperatives producing all kinds of products, including bags, ceramics, books and so on.
 
We will add on diverse groups, and will be almost like a holding company – against forced labour.
 
How can the public support No Chains and the campaign for an end to sweatshops?...
Inviting the public to participate: make No Chains a successful global sweatfree brand!
 
No Chains must be strongly recognized as a brand, to have maximum impact in highlighting workers’ struggles in the garment industry and to offer a viable alternative model of decent work that exists outside the chains of exploitation that are the typical features of the global supply chain. As Naomi Klein clearly pointed out in her book No Logo, the chief way that brands such as Nike, Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger attract customers is by their image, not by their materials, workmanship, or quality alone. 
 
If decades experience in labor struggles have taught the members of both Dignity Returns and La Alameda, it is that word of mouth is key! News on the grapevine about upcoming layoffs at a Thai factory gives union leaders time to prepare for a fight with management. Whispered conversations about sweatshops harbouring trafficked migrant workers gives members of La Alameda crucial information needed to locate these clandestine sites and denounce their managers. 
 
Now No Chains asks everyone opposed to sweatshop-produced garments to use this same word of mouth - spread the word! No Chains must become a brand that social movement activists as well as ethical consumers value no less than they would value other famous brands like Ralph Lauren, the GAP or other costly brands.
 
With an established following, No Chains can use its public presence not only to denounce other exploitative brands through campaigns, but also to offer a living model of non-exploitative production that others can emulate.
 
About the Cooperative Factories of No Chains
 
Dignity Returns – Bangkok, Thailand
 
The Solidarity Factory was created as a workers’ cooperative by ex-employees of a company called Bed and Bath which made brand-name clothing for export, such as for Nike, Adidas, Gap, Reebok and UMBRO. The workers had been made redundant without being paid any of the compensation that is required by Thai law. Yet, the company never complied with any of these brands’ Codes of Conduct and treated its staff like slaves. Working hours were often as long as 60 hours of continuous work. Employees were given addictive drugs to keep them awake. Deductions were made from earnings without due cause. Employees found eating lemons (to stay awake) were fined 2,000 baht (60USD). Those caught yawning were fined 500 baht (15USD). 
 
The workforce finally rose in protest to demand their rights according to the law, but the government refused to force the company to obey even basic labour codes. After 3 months, the workers stopped fighting. Many did not want to go and work for another boss in another factory ever again. So the Solidarity Factory was born, with the slogan “A Factory by Workers, for Workers.” 
 
“Sometimes people outside say that we still have to work hard, it’s no different than working in the old factory. But we know that it is different. In this place, there is no boss hanging over or taking advantage of us. Most importantly, here is our own factory....”
Manop Kaewpaga, Dignity Returns
 
20 of December, La Alameda – Buenos Aires, Argentina
 
The cooperative “20 of December,” popularly known as “La Alameda” (so called, for the name of the bar where the head of the organization currently is located), grew out of a popular assembly in the neighbourhood of Parque Avellaneda, forming in the year 2002 a way to answer some of the most pressing problems of the moment then: the hunger and unemployment that had become rampant since the economic crisis gripping Argentina in 2001. 
 
After starting by providing food to the unemployed in a community cafeteria, La Alameda considered it necessary to begin providing a source of genuine work as a way for people to recover the culture of work and their dignity. Thus several cooperative were formed, and 20 of December is the garment factory that now is operating inside La Alameda. 
 
La Alameda has also helped form the Union of Garment Workers (Union de Trabajadores Costureros – UTC), which unites both formal and informal garment workers to form democratic unions in garment factories. Now La Alameda continues the fight for decent work for all people by exposing sex trafficking, child labour on farms, and slave labour in the agriculture industry as well as garment industry. The activists of La Alameda have been nicknamed The Exploiter-hunters.
 
About No Chains, Gustavo Vera says: “Through purposeful action we are denouncing the persistence of slave labour, which has global markets and which leads major brands to take advantage of vulnerable groups and of lax legislation in order to impose forced labour in various parts of the world.”
 
For more information, see:
 
No Chains Official Website:
 
Dignity Returns Website:
 
La Alameda Websites:
 
No Chains Facebook Fan Page: