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From lingerie protest to social enterprise

In the midst of Thailand’s political protests, the labor dispute at Triumph drew wide public attention. The fight began when a group of female workers demanded that the company respected their rights after being laid off, but took an unexpected and unconventional twist, as it led to a different way of doing a business- a social enterprise. The workers set up their own company, Try Arm, pledging to prioritize the well-being of workers, their friends and society, rather than simply focus on profits. Try Arm has subsequently attracted much attention as an alternative business model.

Jittra Kochdech, a former worker and President of Try Arm labor union, currently coordinates Try Arm employees and serves as advisor to the Try Arm labor union. She tells us the Try Arm story in this interview with TrendNovation.

Q: How did the story start, and why did it grab the public’s attention?

"One of the reasons why the dispute was able to draw public attention was that it exemplified a new and creative means of protest that was smart and constructive, compared with traditional forms of protest such as blocking streets or giving out leaflets. It also offered new hope to Thailand’s many skilled and unskilled workers who feel their needs are rarely taken seriously. Our message was communicated through positive action- producing and selling real, high quality garments in order to demonstrate their skills and the unfairness of their dismissal. The name of the new company- Try Arm- also poked fun at their previous employer (Triumph), which helped win support. Moreover, Try Arm garments sell at a third of the price of the original previous brand, using the same standard of materials and workmanship. This innovative method of protest was covered by the media and Try Arm obtained its first order, worth 20,000 Euros from Switzerland. Additional orders soon followed, including from many domestic customers who had heard our story.”

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Q: What principles does Try Arm follow in doing business?
“The collective group of Try Arm is in a form of cooperative that involves everybody’s equal participation. It began with an association of 35 former employees who pooled their efforts to raise funds. The group never imagined building a large business. All they did was to fight and persevere to run the firm on the philosophy of sufficiency; they never once thought about expansion through borrowing. Even though an American investor offered major financial support for expansion of factories, they declined this offer, because they feared a return to the old working system. In the beginning, they happily worked without remuneration, but as Try Arm’s popularity increased, orders started to come in, and now all members earn 300 baht per day. Though this was less than they earned with the old company, this was compensated by the lower stress level, better quality of life, and friendly, non-exploitative working environment. The workers are satisfied and proud."

Q: What social initiatives has Try Arm introduced?
“What is interesting about the Try Arm business is not its organization as a profit-making collective, but its retention of social values. How can a business provide mutual support among colleagues and increase social equity within the community? The group is confident that its creative power can change society for the better. For example, the group initiated a “Fair-Fair” project to assist various labor organizations, selling Try Arm garments at a 20% discount; it also donates to relevant activities of these unions, and supports activities such as labor strikes to demand better employment status. We also send representatives to work with different organizations demanding higher minimum wages or other basic benefits. We are also setting up a work safety institute. This has all been made possible by the steady flow of orders which gave us financial stability. In the near future, the group plans to establish a fund to support union issues, help other labor groups establish new unions, and help other unions negotiate with their employers on equity issues.”
Evidently, Try Arm sets an ideal example and sends the powerful and positive message that profits and social responsibility can co-exist. When people work with happiness and contribute economic value, it stabilizes our society and strengthens our economy."

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Sources:

Noviscape, June 2011, page 15: http://newsletters.clearsignals.org/Noviscape_June2011#page=15