When we started our tailored suits business, we investigated a lot of options for a base of production. China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia were all in the mix. We considered factors like cost (naturally), quality of production, fair wages and likelihood of exploitation of workers. It’s hard in some of these countries to get a clear picture of what’s happening in the factories and even harder to go and take a look yourself.
Our initial decision was to contract with a VERY large Chinese factory, whose sheer number of domestic and international accreditations, we hoped, would ensure they were being fair to their workers. Most Chinese factories we dismissed out of hand as too risky on the human rights side. Once we encountered a problem with that factory, though, we were left scrambling for an alternative on very short notice.
So we went to the nearest democratic country where could also ensure consistent high quality, albeit with slightly higher costs. We didn’t want to risk complicity in worker abuse or mistreatment. From the beginning we determined that we would be price-takers; we have never negotiated wages with our tailors. They all set their own rates – this is how we ensure a fair go for everyone.
And all was going well for the first year; the tailors were happy, we were happy and could sleep at night. This all changed in the past week, when following months of street protests the Thai army seized power in a coup and displaced the democratically elected parliament. All of a sudden, we were running our production out of a country ruled by military dictatorship; a worrying scenario, to say the least.
In running an ethical business, one of our core tenets is not supporting totalitarian regimes that infringe upon the human rights of their people. This can be a fine line. Of course, it’s unrealistic to say “We will have nothing to do with China because it isn’t a democracy” – everybody has something to do with China. But you can try to mitigate the impact with good business practices, such as never paying bribes to government officials and paying your workers a fair wage that will allow them to better their lives and those of their family.
So we will be watching the situation closely and with great concern. Our sincere hope is that this period ends, like others before, with a political solution; a new election and a democratically elected (and hopefully stable) government. We will be carefully monitoring the actions of the Thai military for signs of change, hoping that what they are saying is correct; they seek stability and a quick return to democracy.
The endorsement of the King, which the coup leaders received last weekend will, we hope, go a long way towards speeding up the reforms and moving towards an election within months, and not years. But some worrying signs have emerged from Bangkok these last few days; threats of social media channels being taken down, abuse by police of foreign journalists and more violence on the streets in the form of anti-coup protestors.
So yes, we are worried – we’re worried that overnight, we have seen Thailand go from an unstable democracy to a military dictatorship. We’re worried the security situation on the ground could worsen for our people and we’re worried that the end is not yet in sight. We don’t want to end supporting an authoritarian regime; but on the other hand, we can’t abandon our workers due to factors beyond their control. Not an unusual conundrum in this part of the world, but a conundrum nonetheless.