“Trio” (Lao) Export Co., Ltd Garment Manufacturers Industry – from fabrics to education in Ban Sikeud

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During our work at Ban Phang Heng lower secondary school we also spent time together with Madame Engel of the Angels for Children Foundation (AfC). This is always very interesting. On one of those days, she gave us a guided tour through the largest company in the area called Trio (Lao) Export Co., Ltd Garment Manufacturers Industry. This textile company was the decisive factor in the reconstruction of the three state schools by “Angels for Children”, namely the Ban Phang Heng Lower Secondary School, the Ban Phang Heng primary school, and the Ban Sikeud primary school.

The company’s development brought with it a large increase of population in the surrounding villages. The children of many workers were playing in the streets of Sikeud during the day, many of them barefoot and with little else to wear, while their parents were at work producing garments for the West. To give the children a better perspective in life by way of education, the foundation rebuilt the three schools. This would not only ensure a better future for the children, but also produce a workforce for the area (and Trio, of course) that learns to read, write, and count to start with. (The average age of the Lao population is 22.) To enable the children to be admitted to school, Madame Engel and her sister-in-law sewed school-uniforms for them at weekends.

It was Mme Engel who set up the company in Ban Sikeud in 1994, for the Austrian employer she had worked for before in China. On 16 March 2018, she shared some private insights into the company’s history and interior with us. The guided tour around the factory, which so far we had only known from cycling past every day, lasted about one hour, and we received a lot of fascinating first-hand information from Madame and one of the managers. Mme Engel established 1,600 jobs in total over the years. At the time of her retirement in 1998, she passed on the responsibility to other trusted hands.

A large business was moved in Laos for the very first time when Trio was opened in 1994. Now the factory has more than 2,340 employees and still has capacity for 160 more. At present another hall is being built to accommodate 600 more workers. The company was the largest employer in Laos when it opened and is now the largest in the area – and it is also very popular due to its exceptionally good working-conditions. The working hours of the employees are from 8 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening, with a lunch break of one hour. Trio employees can earn more in addition to their fixed salary if they work quickly and effectively. We asked whether the employees would change their jobs at the table or sewing-machine to get this change, but this would not make sense because the idea is that they can become faster and better at their work. The faster the employees complete a part, the higher the chance is of a higher wage at the end of the month. This is called piece work. The employees also get regular “rice money”, which means they can buy rice from this money and keep their salary for other items. There are disruptions, of course, especially when suppliers are late with materials. In this case the employees have to work overtime until the warehouse is restocked; the extra hours are paid with 25% more hourly wages.

Besides the working conditions, the company is famous for its high standards of hygiene. Not only is the work area kept clinically clean, but the employees also have the possibility to wash themselves in large white-tiled washrooms. Also, to prevent food and insects from being brought into the halls, all employees and bags must undergo a security check before they enter their workplace. The air-conditioned halls make working bearable in this tropical climate.

These (western) standards and the fact that the company satisfies its customers and therefore always gets new orders leads to a stable financial situation which makes the company a very attractive employer. Since a minimum wage was introduced in Laos in 2015, many companies have had to close down. Trio is a “secure” employer that met the minimum wage requirement before it was even introduced, so Sikeud is now one of the “richest” villages in the area.

As we were not allowed to take photos inside the factory during our excursion, we can only provide pictures from the outside, and of the employees’ routines as they reveal themselves to us outside of the blue walls.

Trio is a garment factory which produces high-end working clothes for a famous German-Austrian brand. We already knew the clothes from the advertisements shown in German cinemas before a movie. Their selling-point is that no blue-collar worker need ever feel poorly dressed again standing next to a white-collar worker in a supermarket queue, say. We could see this in the finished clothing: They are modern, elaborate, stylish. It was extremely interesting to see the different stages of production from the beginning, the cutting of the materials, until the end, the packaging of the finished products.

In total, Trio has six halls, with a capacity of 600 employees per hall. Some employees have a table and a sewing-machine, others are responsible for ironing the garment or packaging the clothes. During our tour we became aware of the very high quality of the products made here. Each part is processed with precision and a quality-check is carried out after each step. It is impressive to see how long it takes until all pieces are put together. There are tiny bits of production, like adding the brand name or adding small trouser pockets, and there are more elaborate phases in the production like sewing the materials together. In the initial phase, when Mme Engel started, it took her a very long time to make the high demands regarding the quality  – the difference between high quality and poor quality – understandable to the workers and local managers, and then to implement them. They have become a sine-qua-non since then – and maybe one day there will also be a label inside the clothes advertising the fact that this garment was “Made in Laos”.

Mme Engel still likes to visit the factory now and then because it still is her “baby”, as she told us. To this day, her former employer shows his gratitude by sending cheques for her other “baby”, the Angel for Children schools in Sikeud. With these donations, new buildings for the three schools could be added like the sports building and now the new library, which is almost finished.

We experienced the factory as a very modern workspace by any standards. On the other side of the street one can find the dorms for the employees as well as showers and roofed picnic-like areas outside where the workers can sit, socialize, and have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In one room there are between three and four berths. On Saturdays the manufactory is open half a day and on Sunday it is closed.

Whenever we ride to school with our bicycles, we see that during rush-hour we had better not attempt to ride to school because then all the employees are in the (only) street to get food, and no vehicle stands a chance until the masses of people have dispersed. This can take half an hour.

The village provides food for the employees throughout the day with their stalls and pick-ups and scooters-turned-shops lining the street, which is nice to see. However, when we want to go to the market to buy vegetables for our dinner, we must make sure to go shopping before the employees finish their work, otherwise we will most likely not get the food we would like. The same phenomenon occurs at the one and only cash machine in Sikeud. When the employees have their lunch break or end their work in the evening, a queue will form there of at least 40 people. Sometimes it can happen that there will be no cash left in the machine for a few days because of the high demand.

All in all we can say that is was a unique experience to get an insight into a Lao/Austrian textile factory – the company where most of our pupils’ parents work. We were glad to witness that they have good and reliable working-conditions, which is not the norm in this country yet. We also realized that, without Trio, “our” three schools as they are today would not exist and we would not have had the chance to become part of such an amazing teaching project, and be here today.

Text by I. Kaemmer, S. Ud-Din & I. Martin

Photos & videos by S. Ud-Din

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