Workers at the Kanlayanee Factory in Thailand

“After we received the money, we were so relieved and very happy. We can make our dreams come true because of the compensation we got.”


Victory: migrant workers finally got paid

After two years of struggle and uncertainty, the migrant workers at the Kanlayanee factory achieved a victory in 2021. At last, they were paid their unlawfully withheld wages. As far as is known, they are the first in Thailand's Mae Sot area to receive recognition and compensation for wage theft.

Aprons for Starbucks

The small Kanlayanee factory in Thailand employed 26 migrant workers from Myanmar (Burma). The workplace, more of a room than a factory, had a ceiling so low that workers could touch it, there was also little daylight or fresh air.

The migrant workers made aprons for Starbucks, Despicable Me t-shirts for the media company NBC Universal, and other items for Disney and for the British supermarket chain Tesco. For years they were exploited; for two years they were paid less than a euro an hour and forced to work unpaid overtime. "We worked seven days a week, and often 15 hours a day," they tell us in a video.

Factory doors close

In September 2019, the workers revealed their story about the poor labour conditions to the media. In response, Starbucks withdrew its orders, and the factory unexpectedly closed its doors. The workers were left empty-handed. However, they did not leave it at that and demanded that their withheld wages still be paid. The opposite happened and the workers were blacklisted as "troublemakers". As a result, they were unable to find work anywhere else in the area.

Court ruled in their favour

The workers bravely continued their fight for justice and went to court. The Thai court ruled in their favour: together they were entitled to almost 100,000 euros in compensation. However, the owner of the Kanlayanee factory (which she named after herself) lacked the resources to pay this amount in full. The workers did not see a cent during the year following the court's ruling. With no new work and no payment of wage arrears they were forced to borrow money to make ends meet. Their daily meal consisted of plants they picked by the side of the road and some rice. The covid pandemic made conditions even more difficult. With brands cancelling their orders on a massive scale, unemployment became a serious issue.

No choice

In November 2020, the Kanlayanee workers went to court again, but they were pressured by the court to agree to a lower amount of compensation, paid by the owner only. "We had little choice other than to accept this," says one of them. After all, the owner did not have enough money.

Despicable Me

With international support from Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and allies, the Kanlayanee workers then turned to the factory’s buyers Starbucks, Tesco, Disney and NBC Universal. Together, the four companies had a market value of nearly 450 billion euros; they would barely even feel the legally established compensation of 98 thousand euros. While for the workers who helped make these companies' profits possible it could mean a difference of life or death.

"We made your clothes, helped you make your profits. Now it's your turn to help us. We deserve justice. Do the right thing, and pay us what is owed," they say in their campaign video.

Organisations around the world picked up on the online Minion campaign, inspired by NBC Universal's Despicable Me movies. Sympathizers addressed brands online about their responsibility to pay up. Starbucks employees in the U.S. connected with the Kanlayanee workers through a petition which really helped. First Tesco and Starbucks paid part of the amount owed and then Disney stepped in. Just before an announced action during the Golden Globes film and television awards, the media company NBC Universal finally agreed to pay the remaining amount.

In a new video the garment workers reacted to the pay-outs:

"After we received the money, we were relieved and very happy. We can make our dreams come true because we got the compensation. Now we can support our families who stayed behind in Myanmar again."

“If brands took responsibility for their supply chains, these 26 workers would not have faced such extreme hardship as they fought for their rights,” cites a CCC coordinator.

Major precedent

This group of migrants securing a first-time victory sets a major precedent in the industry and shows the power of worker solidarity and international campaigning not only to the people buying these clothes, but mostly to the workers themselves. The perseverance of the workers and MAP Foundation motivated workers all over the region to organise and fight for their labour rights. Part of the compensation went into a community centre where workers can go for legal support.

Thailand - Mae Sot

Mae Sot, which is about 500 kilometres from Bangkok, near the border with Myanmar, Burma, is a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) where almost half of the industry is made up of garment factories. In a SEZ there are favourable tax rules for companies while working conditions are generally poor. Mae Sot employs some 44,500 people, mostly migrant workers from Myanmar.

According to the MAP Foundation, a CCC member organisation which works to provide legal protection for migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand, the number of factories there that pay the legal minimum wage can be counted on one hand. "I don't see Mae Sot as part of Thailand, but as a lawless area," a MAP Foundation spokesperson told Reuters.