Profile of a Home-Based Shoemaker, Thailand

Mrs Malee Ratana (Auntie Ngarm)

Mrs Malee Ratana or Auntie Ngarm (a nickname) was 51 years old in 2011. She lived in Bangkok, in the Rom Klao National Housing Authority Housing Estate, Zone 9, Klong Song Ton Noon subdistrict, Lat Kraban

Auntie Ngarm left school after finishing the eighth grade. Since 1981, she has earned her living sewing leather sandals and shoes of famous brands, such as Scholl, Bata, Tawin and Findig. It is the only work she has ever done. The work was subcontracted to her by an employer who owned a row-house factory. She chose to do this job because she could do it at home, so she could also look after her house and three children.

Most such shoemaking is done by women. “Not a single man will lend his hand because he believes it’s a woman’s job. Men will go out to work and leave home-based jobs to women,” says Auntie Ngarm.

Her husband for example is a driver, and earns 10,000 baht a month.

When she first started shoemaking, there was a lot of work coming her way from the contractor every day. When the contractor got his orders, she would be the first subcontractor, who would then distribute the jobs to other home-based workers in the community. There were no employment contracts with her employers, just simple delivery notes. Moreover, she was working for so many companies that she sometimes could not remember their names.

As for the wages, for sewing a pair of sandals, the sewer would get 4 baht (an increase from her original wage of 2.50 baht) for the side sewing only. The sewing of a full pair of shoes would receive 7 baht, two baht higher than she made before. For all the work distributed by Auntie, she would deduct one baht as a management fee from the sewing wage of every pair of sandals and shoes.

Previously, there was loads of work and it kept coming so that she had to work all day. She began work each day at 7:00 a.m. and worked until about 10:00 p.m.—and sometimes as late as midnight—but got only a short break during the day or at supper time. Essentially, she spent about 13-15 hours working.

Reduced Work and Income

She recalled that in those days, she worked with many contractors and they offered as much work as she could handle. Initially, 10 row-house factory-based employers subcontracted their work, amounting to about 1,000-2,000 pairs of shoes to her to distribute to other community workers. Her monthly income was 15,000-20,000 baht—but now it has been reduced to only about 4,000-5,000 baht. Recently, there were only 3-4 contractors because some of them were out of business, resulting in Auntie’s reduced income. Now she works only five days a week, from Monday to Friday. After finishing her housework, she will start sewing shoes from 10:00 am and work till 9:00 pm., then she goes to bed. Her daily work totals around 10-11 hours.

Auntie said, “In the past, a lot of people, about 70-80 in the Rom Klao Community Zone 9, were engaged in shoe sewing. Let’s say that almost every household was doing the job, either shoemaking or dressmaking at home. Now there are only 20-30 workers, since the business is not good. Not a lot of goods are exported as before. Unemployed workers have to go out looking for work. Some have to collect discarded plastic bottles and cardboard boxes and sell them.”

Here is how she described the situation of her work in 2011: “Now the work is not regular. The incoming jobs are meticulous but low-paid work. Even when it is a rush-job order, the wages are the same.”
More importantly, she noted, the work has begun to impact her health. “I have a pain in my back and sometimes my fingers are pricked while I am sewing the shoes.” She added that once she was pregnant but had to sew the shoes, a situation she had to accept because she had no choice.

Cheated Out of Wages

Around 2005, Auntie was working for a company—no employment contract was signed but there were delivery notes—and receiving 2-3 baht for sewing a pair of shoes. Each order would amount to about 500 pairs. She said she had received many orders for sewing work from this contractor. But there were times that they did not pay her wages on time or, often, they postponed their payment. Optimistically, Auntie Ngarm thought she would eventually get paid, but that was not the case. Altogether, the employer owed her as much as 100,000 baht.

She went to the contractor’s house, but he said he could not pay. That left Auntie shocked. She decided to take away the rice the employer sold at his house in exchange for her unpaid wages. “At least, it’s better than nothing,” she said. At the time, other workers were also not paid and went to demand their wages, but to no avail. Those workers also took away the rice and anything that they could take from the employer, who appeared to admit his guilt by saying: “Take as much as you want, indeed I have no money to pay.”

Auntie Ngarm elaborated on her own experience in not getting paid for her wages. In the past, she worked for many contractors about whom she said: “When they have no money, they will not pay us or they will say they’ll pay, but not contact us at all.” She was so worried because she had to pay those who worked under her, too. It was fortunate that her workers understood the problem. Thus, her remedy was to get new orders from new employers to compensate for the loss of previous wages. “I have nothing to offer them, so far I have been cheated all along,” she stated.

Now she has stopped receiving any work from all cheating contractors except from a company based in Bangkok’s On Nuch area. The company was an exporter of shoes. She was paid three baht per pair of shoes and if the design was more complicated, she would receive 10-11 baht per pair. She felt that “though the work is not as regular as before, it’s good to be employed.”