Agreement, the Largest Wage-Theft Settlement at a Garment Factory, Follows Year-Long Advocacy by International Labor Rights Advocates
The Solidarity Center and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) announced today that more than 1,250 Thai workers who sewed bras for Victoria’s Secret, Lane Bryant, and Torrid—and who were fired in 2021 without their legally mandated severance—have received $8.3 million (281 million baht) in compensation. The groups credited the decision of Victoria’s Secret to finance the payments, via a loan arrangement with the workers’ former employer.
Sycamore Partners, the parent of Lane Bryant and Torrid, did not contribute.
“This is a huge victory for the workers and a testament to the courage of their union and the strength of the international solidarity campaign that supported them,” said David Welsh, Thailand country director of the Solidarity Center. “Low-wage garment workers left destitute by injustice meted out by global supply chains is nothing new. What’s new is they did not accept their fate—and won. We also hope this represents a model for the type of domestic, governmental, international and brand engagement to resolve future cases where garment workers are left in similarly desperate straits. It’s an historic case given the amount of the settlement and again, hopefully, a model for the global garment industry going forward in terms of direct brand involvement’.
The workers are represented by the Triumph International Union, affiliated with the Confederation of Industrial Labour of Thailand.
“Our organization has documented hundreds of cases of wage theft in the apparel supply chain,” said Scott Nova, Executive Director of the WRC. “This was the largest theft—and now the most back pay—we’ve ever seen at an individual garment factory. The $8.3 million provided by Victoria’s Secret is also the most any brand has ever contributed to help resolve a wage theft case.”
After the Brilliant Alliance factory closed in March 2021, the Thai government ordered its owner, Hong Kong-based Clover Group, to pay severance within 30 days. Clover refused, telling the factory’s 1,250 low-wage workers it had no money and they should agree to wait 10 years to be paid in full.
With the Solidarity Center’s support and advocacy, the union launched a campaign demanding their severance pay. The WRC and Solidarity Center engaged Victoria’s Secret and Sycamore, pressing them to ensure the workers were paid. The WRC identified other brands that did not use Brilliant Alliance, but had influence over Clover and over a key business partner, Brandix, a Sri Lankan apparel supplier: American Eagle Outfitters, Gap, and PVH. After months of efforts, including campaigning by Clean Clothes Campaign, Remake, and other nonprofit worker advocacy organizations participating in the global #PayYourWorkers coalition, Clover agreed to pay the workers and Victoria’s Secret committed to finance the payments, via a loan to Clover. Last week, all workers received their severance, plus over one million dollars in interest, per Thai law.
Sycamore Partners ignored entreaties and did nothing to support the workers.
“Many of the workers were at the factory for well over a decade and they earned very substantial severance,” said Welsh, noting that the average Brilliant Alliance worker received the equivalent of more than two years’ wages and some received as much as four years’ pay.
“The severance these workers earned was effectively their life’s savings,” said Nova, “stolen from them when they were fired and now restored.” He continued, “Victoria’s Secret should be very proud of what it has done here. The people who run Sycamore Partners should hang their heads in shame.”
The Solidarity Center can arrange worker interviews upon request.
While most garment-producing countries require severance, non-payment is a chronic problem in the apparel industry. For more information on severance theft, see Fired, Then Robbed: Fashion brands’ complicity in wage theft during Covid-19, available here.
Before closing Brilliant Alliance, Clover Group formed a partnership with Sri Lanka-based Brandix, one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers. All of Clover’s factories were included in the new company, except Brilliant Alliance, allowing Clover and Brandix to profit from Clover’s assets and its ongoing brand relationships, while the Brilliant Alliance workers went unpaid.
Hundreds of civil society organizations, including trade unions and labor rights groups, along with the Solidarity Center and the WRC, have endorsed #PayYourWorkers, an effort to press apparel brands to join with unions to create a global severance guarantee fund, thereby putting an end to severance theft in the global apparel industry.
A far-reaching project by Poland’s largest union federation is providing comprehensive assistance to Ukrainian refugees to ensure they have fundamental rights on the job as they take on new employment in the country.
“When the war in Ukraine broke out and refugees started coming to Poland in huge numbers, we knew that we had to integrate them,” says Piotr Ostrowski, vice president of the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ), which is spearheading the project.
“Trade unions must ensure decent working conditions for all: For youths and adults. For men and women. For locals and migrants. No matter what passport they have, what color their skin is, where they come from. Migrants must not be exploited.”
More than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, 75 percent of them women, have found jobs in Poland, an extraordinary number facilitated by a law Poland passed in March allowing Ukrainians entering the country after February 24 to secure employment without special permits.
Yet, like migrant workers around the world, they are vulnerable to exploitation, with some employers refusing to pay full wages or otherwise violating fundamental worker rights.
In March, OPZZ launched Unions Helping Refugees, staffed by lawyers and other experts who educate Ukrainian workers on their rights under Polish law and assist with cases involving unpaid wages or wages lower than the minimum, and offer legal review of employment contracts to ensure they are within the law. The Solidarity Center made a significant contribution toward the OPZZ services.
“In OPZZ, we knew that we had to act as soon as possible to provide refugees with information about their rights on the Polish labor market and where they could go if they had problems,” Ostrowski says.
The free service is available in person, by email or through a new info line. Most recently, OPZZ began offering free psychological consultations for war refugees.
All Refugees Must Be Treated Equally
“Our team of experts supports refugees in the workplace and helps migrant workers get fair working conditions,” reads a typical post on the Unions Helping Refugees Facebook page. “What do we do and how can we help?”
Through its Facebook page, billboards and posters in bus stations and other transit areas, Unions Helping Refugees is reaching out as widely as possible to connect with Ukrainian migrant workers. Union staff assisting the refugees say in addition to seeking jobs, Ukrainians are looking for information on social benefits and finding housing.
One of the biggest challenges—in addition to trying to assist so many Ukrainian refugees who come to Poland—is finding people who speak Ukrainian: “Many refugees do not speak Polish. Although Polish and Ukrainian are similar, they are two different languages,” Ostrowski says. “The alphabet is also different. In Poland, we use the Latin alphabet. So the main problem is reaching the refugees and the language barrier.”
OPZZ is undertaking this massive effort even as the union addresses issues affecting workers throughout Poland, like falling wages, an increase in precarious working conditions—especially for young people and migrants—and the proliferation of what Ostrowski says are “junk” contracts that do not protect worker rights.
Yet, the bottom line, says Ostrowski, is that all migrant workers and refugees have the same rights as everyone—and must be treated as such.
“While helping the Ukrainian refugees, we should not forget about other refugees,” he says.
“On the one hand, the Polish government is very open to refugees from Ukraine, but at the same time it is very brutal towards refugees from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. The Polish government is applying double standards based on xenophobia, islamophobia and racism. For OPZZ this is unacceptable. We are totally against it.”
In April, at least 18 union leaders were recently arrested in Belarus, where an autocracy has run the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those arrested was Sergey Antusevich, vice president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, who was a guest on The Solidarity Center Podcast in 2021. On the show, re-aired here, Antusevich spoke passionately about how Belarusian workers took to the streets to protest fraudulent elections in 2020 that meant the country’s autocrat would continue in power. ”
When addressing migration, governments must focus on human rights: “When you prioritize human rights, you naturally shift from criminalization and focus on rights-based approaches,” says Mishka Pillay, a migration and lived experience advocate and campaigner.
“Migration is historical, it’s natural it’s been here for centuries—and it needs to be normalized by countries.”
Approved by United Nations member states in 2018, the Global Compact for Migration reaffirms countries’ commitment to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all migrants. In May, the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) will assess progress on the compact and the Spotlight Report seeks to ensure that grassroots migrant perspectives on progress and challenges are central to the discussions.
“Morally and ethically it is imperative to listen to people’s lived experiences. Government needs to listen and learn how migration is affecting real people,” says Pillay, an author in the report.
The Global Coalition on Migration, which includes the Solidarity Center, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung institute, released the report. Today’s launch emphasized the importance of migrants’ agency, including the agency of migrant workers, in the policy and process decisions that affect their lives, including in their workplaces.
Decent Work Key to Addressing Migration
A focus on decent work in origin countries “is necessary to break cycles of exploitation and prevent labor migration pathways from perpetuating global power and wealth imbalances,” writes Neha Misra, Solidarity Center global lead for migration and human trafficking. Misra co-authored the Spotlight Report article, “People Not Profit: Coherent Migration Pathways Centered in Human Rights and Decent Work for All.”
“For too long, failed foreign and trade policies have prioritized the interests of corporations and low-wage, export-oriented growth while actively undermining democracy and accountability, contributing to the push factors driving people to migrate,” the article states.
Shannon Lederer, AFL-CIO director of immigration policy and Yanira Merino, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), are co-authors.
Among the report’s recommendations:
Migrant workers, regardless of status, must have rights in line with international labor standards for all workers
Migrants must have rights at international borders
There must be alternatives to detention of migrants
Migrants must have access to public services and social protections, regardless of status
Coherent policies must be developed for those migrating due to climate related factors
Countries must adopt regularization policies and rights-based regular migration channels—that allow migrants the freedom to move, settle, work and fully participate in society—over expanding temporary or circular work programs. Countries should promote regular migration pathways that ensure full worker rights, facilitate social and family cohesion, and provide options for permanent residence and meaningful participation in civic life.
Commenting on the report during the panel discussion, Fernando de la Mora, who is part of IMRF discussions through the Economic, Social, Human Rights and Humanitarian Section of Mexico’s UN mission, reiterated his government’s support for a commitment to decent work in origin and destination countries, and summed up the report’s goals this way:
Two women unionist activists in Myanmar were assaulted and arrested late last week after the taxi they were traveling in was rammed by a military vehicle in eastern Yangon. According to eyewitnesses at the scene, six soldiers exited a military vehicle after ramming the taxi and assaulted the unionists before loading them and the taxi driver into their vehicle and driving away.
Along with 18 others, the two union activists had participated in a march to protest the ongoing assault on civic freedoms by the military junta, which seized power from the elected government in February 2021. The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the Myanmar Labor Alliance (MLA) and the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) organized the protest. (Support Myanmar workers under attack here.)
Khaing Thinzar, CTUM communications director, and Ei Phyu Phyu Myint, a member of the Glory Fashion Factory Union, were arrested and taken to an interrogation center in Shwepyithar, according to CTUM. Under the junta, physical torture, including sexual assault, is widespread weapon against dissent.
Thousands of people have been killed and many more imprisoned since the coup. The military has especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many have fled the country or are in hiding. The military has pledged to “annihilate” those who oppose the regime.
Workers–women in particular–took an early lead in the protests, with the country’s 450,000 garment workers especially active in organizing civil disobedience actions and shutting down factories. They have asked multinational fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.
Since the coup, workers have risked their lives and livelihoods to stand up for a return to democratic governance.
“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other,” says CTUM Assistant General Secretary Phyo Sandar Soe.
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