Sintiche E.D. (Mimmy) Kowel

Role: Coordinator, Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) South-East Asian Coalition
Active in Country: Indonesia

DTP Program: Human Rights Advocacy and Business, Philippines, 2008

Originally an employee of a private bank in Indonesia, Mimmy Kowel discovered her true passion for activism through her husband’s personal associations with foreign and local labour activists. She delved into this newfound calling by supporting their work with the interpretation and translation of local Indonesian languages; the friendships and opportunities Mimmy developed through this endeavour motivated her to leave her position within the banking world indefinitely.

Subsequently, she started working as a consultant for Oxfam Australia’s Workplace Campaign project in Indonesia in 2008 and provided campaigning, lobbying and advocacy support to workers within the sportswear industry. In 2017, she transitioned to her current position as coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) South-East Asian Coalition, a collective of over 230 organisations devoted to causes besetting the garment industry, such as labour rights violations and consumers’ lack of awareness.

Mimmy strives for the protection of workers against the rampant abuses within the garment and sportswear industries by equipping them with knowledge of their rights, lobbying for the improvement of legislation concerning these rights as well as raising consumer awareness and support. The violations she addresses are those afflicting workers’ freedom of assembly and association (e.g., the right to form and join trade unions to protect their interests), workers’ health and safety (e.g., the right to refuse dangerous work without reprisal, the right to know about workplace hazards and basic health and safety information), workers’ wages (Covid-19 has aggravated wage theft, with workers being denied legally owed wages and severance when their employment is terminated) and labour rights activists’ work (who may become targets for the Indonesian government). The CCC’s current campaigns include #PayYourWorkers and #PayUpUniqlo, which challenge multinational brands including Uniqlo, Nike, Amazon and Next regarding wage theft.

“One should really find a passion to be able to be as dedicated. This is not a place to seek glory. You've got to always put the people you are fighting for first. It takes nothing but invested time and sincerity to gain their trust.”

A noticeably modest person, Mimmy recalled her participation in DTP’s Human Rights Advocacy and Business training program in 2008 as a solidifying experience not only for her own knowledge of violations within the workplace and the necessity for complaint mechanisms but also for her own network-building within the human rights community, with some having since become her colleagues within the CCC. Advocacy achievements she wished to highlight for us included the creation of the 2011 “freedom of association protocol”, the first multi-stakeholder agreement signed between prominent sportswear brands, their suppliers and the trade unions in Indonesia, which functioned as a non-judicial mechanism whereby brands and their suppliers’ guarantee their respect of workers’ freedom of assembly and association rights.

As the garment industry moved into other countries in South East Asia like Vietnam and Myanmar, with associated risks for the low-paid female workforce, Mimmy persevered in supporting labour organisations in Myanmar to prevent abuses, organise the workers and campaign for their rights. She expanded CCC’s network, which resulted in nine new members joining as of 2019. Unfortunately, Mimmy emphasised the difficulties arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, with her work in Myanmar having been halted; she expressed her profound sympathy for her colleagues and the workers navigating the complex socioeconomic and political conditions within Myanmar. Within her own native Indonesia, “factory Covid-19 clusters” have proven challenging, with most clothing workers unavoidably needing to work, regardless of their health and safety, for economic reasons.

Despite setbacks brought on by the pandemic, Mimmy is still as determined as ever and is currently participating in CCC global network’s campaign on devising a binding contract for brands, suppliers and workers’ representatives to sign regarding workers’ wages. Regrettably, nearly all clothing workers in Indonesia are only receiving minimum wages, which is insufficient for their costs of living and forces them into working overtime for their employers. This situation is further exacerbated by brands frequently changing their quantity and model orders without delaying shipping dates and/or providing adequate remuneration for the work having been wasted. Limitations on workers’ working hours by brands also generate abuses through factory workers overtime hours not being counted officially by suppliers, leaving many vulnerable to exploitation.

Mimmy highlights the importance of evidence-based research when calling out brands and renewal of knowledge concerning not only multinational brands’ practices but also those of emerging companies within the Asia-Pacific region that paint themselves as ethical and sustainable. She sincerely urges consumers to research those businesses rather than blindly accept the practices and promises displayed on their “sweet-talking” websites. The realities of the clothing industry may not always be as easily advertisable as it would like to have us think.

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Profile written September 2021