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Thai, Argentine Textile Workers Unite Against Slave Labour

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 23 2010 (IPS) - Textile cooperatives founded by former slave labourers from Argentina and Thailand will jointly launch a new brand of clothing in June to raise awareness about exploitation and promote decent jobs in the garment industry.

On Jun. 4, La Alameda from Argentina and Dignity Returns from Thailand will start selling thousands of T-shirts bearing several different designs under the “No Chains” trademark. They ultimately plan to produce additional clothing items in association with other cooperatives.

“It’s a cry of support for decent work and a way to prove that high quality clothing can be produced without having to enslave workers,” one of the initiative’s promoters, Gustavo Vera of La Alameda, told IPS.

La Alameda first emerged as a community kitchen in 2001, during Argentina’s severe economic crisis. It served many undocumented Bolivian workers who had escaped the garment industry sweatshops that had mushroomed in Buenos Aires.

La Alameda’s repeated complaints about the dismal working conditions, in addition to a tragic accident at one of the sweatshops in which six people died — five of them children –, finally focussed public attention on slave labour, which in Argentina largely involves undocumented immigrants.

The workers spend long days toiling without rest, crowded into spaces where they also live with their families. They lack documents and money, and have little freedom to venture outside the premises.

The clandestine factories provide products for major clothing brands, like Puma, Bensimon, Lecoq, Soho and Kosiuko, according to the complaints that former workers filed in the courts. Justice authorities have seized the machinery from some of the workshops, but have yet to sentence those responsible.

Some of the workers joined together to set up a textile cooperative that sells its own brand, Mundo Alameda, and has the backing of the non-governmental AVINA Foundation.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world in Thailand, a group of women laid off without compensation by the Bed and Bath company when their factory shut down founded the Solidarity Factory cooperative, which later became Dignity Returns.

The members of Dignity Returns say that the factory made clothing for brands including Nike, Gap and Reebok, and that they were forced to work extremely long hours. To add insult to injury, their wages were docked if they complained about fatigue.

The two groups, who met in 2009 at an international conference hosted by the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre, resolved to join forces to make their voices heard around the globe.

The new clothing brand will be launched simultaneously in Buenos Aires and Bangkok.

On the No Chains website, their position is clear: “The clothes produced in typical garment factories trap workers in chains — in chains of debt, chains of control by bosses who care about money and not workers — chains of global production, where many parties grab profits that come from the blood of the workers.”

That is why it is not just about launching a brand or a new self-managed venture, but also about calling attention to the need for industrial production that respects the dignity of workers, without exploitation or slavery, according to the promoters.

“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,” Vera said.

The cooperatives held an international contest for T-shirt designs, and of the six winning motifs, two came from Argentina, and one each from Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea and the United States.

The cooperatives began production in time to meet the launch date, and the idea is to distribute the clothing by consignment through various non-governmental organisations and trade unions.

The next goal, said Vera, is to expand the network to include cooperatives and society at large in the anti-slave labour campaign. There are talks under way to incorporate two more cooperatives, from the Philippines and Indonesia.

“Within a few years we want to have 20 to 30 cooperatives from different countries in the developing world,” he said. There are also plans to diversify the brand to other types of garments.

According to the organisers, the project is not without precedent. The “Clean Clothes Campaign,” led by consumer organisations, promotes sales of clothing that is not produced by slave labour.

But No Chains is the first led by independent cooperatives: “This is the first time that workers coming from the world of slavery are coming together to denounce exploitation and prove that it’s possible to produce clothing under decent working conditions,” said Vera.

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