Noi Supalai has faced years of harsh and abusive working conditions as a garment worker in her home country of Thailand.
On Monday night, she related the story of her and her coworkers’ struggles working in a factory called Eagle Speed, where she produced apparel for Nike. The event was hosted by the Penn State chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops, a national organization campaigning for workers’ rights, as part of its nationwide “Just Do the Right Thing” campaign.
Speaking before a crowd in the Kern Building via a translator, Supalai began by describing how she and her coworkers grew increasingly impatient over the abuses they faced at Eagle Speed. These abuses included harsh time constraints — some days they were forced to “take turns to go home for a shower” — which were brought on by the rigid deadlines set on the products by Nike.
Supalai said because the workers could not produce all of the products by the set deadline, Nike put a fine on the factory, which in turn barred the factory from paying the workers.
“It had been two months that we did not get paid, so we got together to protest,” Supalai said via a translator.
Numbering around 2,000 at the time, the workers turned to the owner of the factory, who said they had no choice but to keep working on the products, Supalai said.
Since they lacked the financial stability to cover their basic necessities, the workers went on strike, she said. As a result of Nike refusing to help them in their current situation, they formed a union, of which Supalai was chosen to be president.
After a series of unsuccessful attempts at drawing the support of other organizations, Supalai said the factory set up an appointment with some Nike representatives, which also ended in failure as they “never showed up.”
Soon after, 23 of her coworkers were locked up by the factory owner for being too “radical” as they were deemed a negative influence on the other workers.
“We were really hopeful,” Supalai said of the anticipation leading up to the appointment. “But when the day of the appointment came, [the representatives] did not show up and they just disappeared, and we never heard of them again.”
Later on, she and her coworkers learned that Nike had moved its orders outside of the factory, Supalai said.
“When I learned that, I was really sad and disappointed,” she said. “I never expected such a big company like Nike to lack such business ethics. They did not have the humanity to care for the workers — actually, they could talk with the factory to treat us better…but they just did not care about the humanity.”
However, she refused to give up the fight. She said she turned to the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent organization founded by USAS, and invited them to inspect the working conditions at the factory.
As a “last hope” for the workers, the WRC was successful in supporting them and “settling things down,” but she said the feud with Nike still left her disappointed and even driven her to burn all of the Nike apparel that she owned.
“I did that because I know now that Nike doesn’t have morality — it doesn’t have business ethics,” Supalai said.
Supalai closed her speech by stressing the importance of monitoring organizations such as the WRC on factories worldwide.
“I would like everyone to support each other in campaigning for Nike to be monitored,” she said. “Nike says it has humanity, that it has morality; this is not true. Nike has to be monitored, because otherwise, it will take advantage of workers who are producing for them.
USAS member Emily Gifford said one of the main issues affecting the organization’s campaign is Nike’s decision to deny access to independent monitors such as the WRC into its factories.
“[WRC] is the main regulatory body that governs how the factories’ policies are implemented to make sure they’re aligned with typical standards,” Gifford (junior-labor and employment relations) said. “So, no child labor; people are actually getting paid fair hours.”
Gifford said she hopes Supalai gives students a “human face” to connect to the issue of sweatshops and allow them to see why it is of particular importance to her organization.
“[Supalai’s speech] will educate people on the issue and gain more support for our campaign,” USAS member Samantha Matthews (freshman-divison of undergraduate studies) said. “Hopefully, she’ll propel that we have [the opportunity] as students and that we can make a change.