UPDATE: Carcel CEO Veronica d’Souza has responded to us, we added her comments to this story.
“What stage of capitalism is this?” That’s the now-viral question Twitter user “@Taste this Sass” asked this weekend about a Danish clothing brand that recently launched a new line of silk clothing made in a “highly secured prison” in Chiang Mai.
The Chiang Mai prison site for Carcel clothing, a new brand that claims to be creating a “positive impact on the world,” began operating last year, according to Suchaya Larmluang, head of the job-vocational training division, who directly oversees the project inside the prison.
“They looked at about 4-5 prisons but finally decided on Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution because we have our own silk factory,” she said, adding that the project was arranged in coordination with various government ministries including the Ministry of Justice.
Far from denying it, the Danish brand’s website is touting the project as a means to empower prisoners by allowing them to earn “fair wages” in order to “learn to support themselves, send their children to school, save up for a crime-free future and ultimately break with the cycle of poverty.”
“We have chosen to do this because women in prison are an overlooked group and normally there are not many ways for them to get the ability to break with the poverty conditions that got them there. Most of the women we work with are mothers, and now they have an opportunity to provide for their children,” Carcel’s CEO and founder Veronica d’Souza told Coconuts Bangkok.
“The women who work for us are employed freely and really happy with their jobs,” she said.
A representative from Humans Rights Watch we spoke to said that work programs are common in Thai prisons.
Carcel reportedly pay local living wages as recommended by the International Labour Organization, recruit women based on motivation and skill, and “never work overtime.”
“In our belief, a fair wage in a country should be related to the cost of living, that’s why we use living wages as a baseline for our salaries,” says CEO d’Souza.
“We think that conditions of fair employment outside the prison should be the same inside. So we look at what someone would get for that job if you were to employ a skilled knitter in Peru or a good seamstress in Thailand and that’s what we pay our women,” she told us.
Carcel’s website says prisoners work about 30 hours per week. Though they don’t specify how much their employees are paid, they say it is a “fixed monthly pay” based on work hours.
Per Suchaya at the prison, the women are paid THB40 an hour, which adds up to THB320 (or about US$10) a day, around the kingdom’s minimum wage.
According to digital news outlet Refinery29, the idea came to d’Souza after she visited a women’s prison in Kenya, where she saw how inmates work all day with low-quality material and no market access.
The 34-year-old d’Souza told the site that the Chiang Mai prison selected for the project has more than 2,000 women inside.
“I was curious about why these women were incarcerated – I had no images of what the prisons would be like,” she said in an interview with Forbes.
“The first thing that struck me when I entered was the fact that it felt like a village. These were ordinary women who had to provide for their families and ended up committing crimes such as drug trafficking or theft.”
Twitter user @TasteThisSas, however, remains unconvinced.
“This is my problem when y’all herald Nordic countries as the model for peak socialism: They aren’t. They still rely heavily on imperialism and exploitation of the global south,” they write on the thread, which has now been shared more than 18,000 times.
“These Danish women are colonizing prison labor.”
What stage of capitalism is this pic.twitter.com/tIcxPHnvfD
— Lana Del Shade. (@TasteThisSass) February 9, 2019
In less than 24 hours, the tweet has attracted a flurry of both criticisms and praise for the project from netizens far and wide.
“Not just cheap labour but enforced labour with zero chance of dissent, profits going in their pocket. Unless I’m missing something this is obscene,” wrote one commenter.
“Just curious. Carcel claims workers are paid the prevailing living wage for that country. Does Carcel intend to employ these skilled workers upon their release? Or is this company’s business model based solely on the labor of incarcerated workers?” wrote another.
Another took the criticisms to task for being naive at best.
“As someone living in a place where what they’re offering is a healthy wage, people here, in and out of prison, would jump at the chance. But outraged woke people from the richest country on Earth and other Westerners know better, I guess.”
For their part, Forbes seems convinced, touting the project as a way for the fashion industry to push towards a more “ethically and ecologically sound” business model.
“Prisoners are encouraged to engage in activities, but these women didn’t have anywhere to sell their products, and when they got out, they were further impoverished, which felt wasteful. The idea of turning forgotten resources into dignifying jobs was born,” Carcel CEO d’Souza told Forbes.
So what do you think Coconauts? Let us know down in the comments section below or on Twitter @CoconutsBangkok.