Economy

Gucci Workers In China Unite! But Luxury Isn't To Blame

Essay: Recent charges that Gucci China workers faced sweatshop-like conditions expose bigger questions about Chinese society. The pursuit of luxury in itself is not a problem, but its side-effects can be.

A Chinese tank rolls past a Gucci store in Beijing (gadgetdan)
A Chinese tank rolls past a Gucci store in Beijing (gadgetdan)
Yang Tingting

BEIJING - The open letter addressed to the top management of Gucci China from its former employees, who resigned en masse last month, ripped the veil off the luxury brand and its working practices. The public suddenly realized that people who work for luxurious brands are not leading a lifestyle that matches their employer's image. They are but ordinary folks who have to work hard like you and me.

Of course, there are reasons why the public has the illusion that those who work for a big name are somehow different. In fact, they often think of themselves as different, and attach the halo of the brand around their own heads. The common arrogance of these luxury brand staff may explain why the Gucci workers didn't gain much sympathy when they resigned over working conditions. The employees say Gucci imposed "sweatshop" conditions on their workers who were forced to stand for more than 14 hours a day, without rest, food or water – and were denied fair overtime pay.

If we consider the Gucci staff to be ordinary working people, then this piece of news can be put back into its original context. Whether in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, masses of fresh graduates from famous universities all work like mad, late into the night, just like the Gucci workers, and get paid a similar salary. In a country where the economy is booming so fast, everyone is obliged to sacrifice their leisure time to ensure the efficient functioning of the entire country. At the same time, the workers themselves are also the beneficiaries of this economic expansion.

The same level of work intensity, of course, goes far beyond Gucci China. In an era when every individual is struggling to survive inflation, who dares say ‘No" to working overtime?

Gucci is not the only prestigious brand that sets up production factories in China. The likes of Prada and Zegna have them too. And each time negative news of these brands gets exposed, threats of boycotts quickly follow. Are luxury goods sinful? Of course not. They are commodities of higher quality. Luxury goods exist to cater to high-end society, where the best materials, the best clocks, the best objects… are required by the royal families, and followed by the rich.

The price of quality

Some famous apparel brands are lured into catering to the mass public, blindly expanding their output at the cost of reducing their quality. But for most luxury brands, they do indeed produce something that lasts longer and endures better. Famous jewelers fly to the other side of the globe just to look for the best gems; fabric manufacturers blend gold or diamond into the wool so that it will better fit the body. Luxury is a wonder itself. It provides choices to those who require higher standards in quality.

And just because certain luxury labels are manufactured in China does not mean the goods are any lower quality. People often misunderstand the Chinese wholesale factories. In fact, many brands have set up factories in China to reproduce according to exactly the same strict European regulatory system. In an honest and sound society, no brand with hundreds of years of history would risk damaging its image by using a cheap "Made in China" label. Instead they choose to use Chinese workers because of the simple laws of economics: China's labor is much cheaper.

Nevertheless, in China, the image of a luxury brand risks being undermined. It is likely to happen to any of these houses. But the fault is with their clients. Most luxury goods are discredited by association; for instance, Hermès now makes people think of Guo Meimei, the scandal ridden Chinese celebrity queen who showed off the real as well as fake luxury goods she owns; while Rolex is considered a brand of the nouveau riche.

A logo that traditionally enjoys an excellent image in other countries is very likely to become a preference of a certain sector of Chinese people when it enters our market. But unfortunately, many of these people do not contribute to a positive public perception. The widening wealth gap and increasing social injustice are making the mass public increasingly hostile to the rich. And luxury is the symbol of the rich.

The public's state of mind is often an elusive target for luxury goods makers. On the one hand, everybody loves to possess these objects themselves; on the other hand, we speculate about others who own them. The problem does not lie in the luxury product, but in the sickness that afflicts our society.

Read the original article in Chinese

photo - gadgetdan

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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