UNIQLO’s neglect of its supplier’s labour exploitation
Difficulties and reflections on the Artigas workers’ collection actions
In recent years, Lever Style Inc., the Hong Kong-based parent company of Artigas Clothing & Leatherwear Factory and its Japanese buyer UNIQLO have been enjoying a rapid rise in their turnover. Their workers, who have been treated as disposable and have been left with nothing, have not benefit from this prosperity however. During the process of factory relocation and merger, senior workers at Artigas, who had worked for decades at the factory and made garments for UNIQLO and other brands, were told that they would not be entitled to pension and severance compensation. Artigas workers have been the most resilient workers in defending their rights.
All for the supplier & brand, workers are left pensionless
On 2 June 2015, they proposed holding collective consultation and were forced to stage a 40-day-strike, enduring the heat-wave while guarding the factory and living under police surveillance and ongoing threats. However, when the workers’ representatives were detained, they were finally defeated by a business-government collusion and accepted a compensation agreement far below the legal standard. Will the workers be stopped there? What can we learn from their experience? CLQ interviewed some anonymous informants to learn about their preliminary reflections.
Detention of workers’ representatives forced workers to sign an unfair agreement
On 15 July, police broke into the factory complex and a violent “clearance” took place to remove workers from the factory. 12 active workers were detained. In the police vehicle, they were threatened that if they kept on defending their rights, they would be treated with criminal detention and charges. Lever Style Inc. also visited some workers’ families to threaten them. Police told the detained workers’ families that release would be granted if all workers signed to accept the compensation programmes proposed by the employer. The police also hinted that the detainees’ families should lobby other workers to accept the compensation programme. Starting from 20 July, workers gradually signed the agreement, even though it was against their own will. The employer-drafted agreement stated that the workers’ resignations were voluntary and that Lever Style Inc. had offered them a “relief fund”, calculated based on their years of services. Workers would receive 500 Yuan per year of service if they had worked less than 10 years at the factory. For over 10 years of service, they would get 800 Yuan per year of service. This “relief fund” is far below the compensation required by law, i.e. one month’s wages for each year of service. The average monthly wage of Artigas workers was 3,500 Yuan, instead of the legal minimum wage of 2,080 Yuan. Most of the workers are unhappy with this compensation and some workers are considering filing a class action lawsuit.
By 13 August, all workers who were detained in the July clearance had been released. However, Wu Weifa (known as Sister Fa), who was first detained on 9 June, was still kept in custody. Her family has received a criminal detention notice, charging her with “obstructing official business”.
The ending of the Artigas workers’ collective action is outrageous and upsetting. CLQ has summed up the discussion with the informants and their reflections are found to be as follows:
1. In a vulnerable position, workers should be better prepared with a go-or-retreat strategy
The power imbalance between workers and the employer was intensified by the business-government collusion. Although workers had predicted that the government would side with their employer and police brutality would be deployed, they should have known that their resistance would only last for a limited time. Thus, it would have been helpful to have organizers who could help them plan their retreat plan in advance.
2. Workers were not well organized in starting their collective action
Having a team of worker representatives was not enough to push such a massive collective action forward. Between the two strikes in December 2014 and June 2015, workers could have had half a year to strengthen their internal organizing and gain more support regarding other issues, such as prolonged overtime and high temperatures at the workplace. However, the number of worker representatives and active workers did not increase over this period of time. After the police detained a large number of worker representatives in mid-July, the other some 300 workers spilt and their collective action collapsed, despite the fact that they had guarded the factory for 40 days together.
3. Workers’ resistance needs family support
The most resilient workers were senior female workers, who made up the majority of the final some 300 workers who guarded the factory. They had a very strong will. However, when the employer and police started to put pressure on their families, their faith was shaken. One organizer admitted that their action had failed to organize workers’ families or to help workers deal with pressure from their families. This was one of the factors that led to their action being aborted.
4. Media and external attention as a double-edged sword
Artigas workers could not speak up in China and needed foreign media and social support to pursue their quest. Yet, they were also worried that foreign support might cause them trouble. When they launched the fund-raising programme to collect funds for petitioning, for example, enormous support was brought in. Yet, the police noticed this and hindered their action (e.g. by confiscating the ATM card for their fund-raising programme). This caused workers to keep quiet about their actions and some even considered the fund as a bomb and refused to use it. Organizers reflected that they should have prepared the workers better, to inform them about the potential risks of getting external attention and teach them about possible solutions.
In short, Artigas workers have been unfairly treated. If they had not resisted and protested, their employer would have just left without paying them a penny of compensation. In a way, they did not fight this battle alone. Support actions for the workers and protests at UNIQLO stores have taken place in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, America, Britain, Turkey, South Korea and Cambodia. The strike might have been settled but workers will still use legal means to claim compensation from Lever Style Inc. The HKCTU will also seek international support through different channels to hold UNIQLO accountable.