I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.
This evocative poem, written by 24 year-old Chinese migrant worker Xu Lizhi, appeared in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago. His anguish and utter despair are undeniable, and nine months after penning that poem, Xu threw himself out of his dormitory building in Shenzhen, China, where he was one of over a million people working in the factories of Foxconn. What’s even more disturbing is that Xu wasn’t the first to take his life because of poor working conditions; in 2010 alone, 18 employees attempted suicide.
The article was published on 12 November, the day before I was supposed to fly to Bangkok, Thailand, to visit – uncannily I might add – Pandora’s jewellery manufacturing facilities. Harrowing images of sweatshops came to mind as I recalled the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last April which killed over 1,100 factory workers and offered little recourse to survivors. Asia, for all its economic prosperity, is notorious for its human rights violations – such is the curse of success.
The Rana Plaza disaster reflects the failure of multinational companies to provide safe working conditions for its factory workers
Will this curse also befall Pandora, arguably one of the biggest success stories in the jewellery industry today? Founded in 1982 by Per Enevoldsen and his wife Winnie, Pandora had its beginnings in a small jeweller’s shop in Copenhagen, Denmark. Their desire to offer women across the world a universe of high quality, hand-finished and modern jewellery products at affordable prices led them to Thailand, where they began manufacturing jewellery in 1989. The launch of Pandora’s signature charm bracelet collection, Moments, in 2000 catapulted the brand to international success, and the ensuing years saw exponential growth.
Today Pandora is sold through approximately 10,000 points of sale (including 1,200 concept stores) in over 80 countries across six continents, recording a total revenue of DKK 9.0 billion (€1.2 billion) in 2013. Its crafting facilities in Gemopolis, Bangkok’s jewellery district, employs about 8,000 workers. I mentally braced myself for what I would discover, but I was excited too: it was the first time I’ve ever visited a jewellery factory and I was eager to learn.
The day before the factory tour, I met with Pandora Vice President Group CSR Claus Teilmann Petersen who acknowledged that the jewellery industry had a “murky” reputation. “The movie Blood Diamond, while a great movie, certainly did not do us any favours!” he joked.
Blood Diamond: the bane of Claus Petersen’s existence (also known as the movie that Leonardo Dicaprio should’ve won as Oscar for)
The ethical sourcing of its core jewellery materials, however, is something that Pandora takes very seriously. For Pandora, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not a marketing gimmick; it runs in the veins of the company (read the main story here), as encapsulated in its CSR and compliance programme, Pandora Ethics. An internal CSR Steering Committee, headed by Claus, ensures that Pandora lives up to the strictest ethical standards.
“Our founder wanted to show that you could do industrial jewellery in a responsible way and that it would pay off. This is his heritage that we are trying to hold on to as we see an explosion in the number of staff,” Claus explained. “When I joined Pandora four years ago, we had 3,500 [people working in the factory]. At the end 2013, we had 6,000 – up 2,000 from the year before – and this year we have grown by another 2,000.”
Those are mind-boggling numbers, but as I witnessed the next day when we finally arrived at Pandora Production Thailand (PPT), Pandora doesn’t just talk the talk, it walks the walk too.
A warm and personalised welcome from Pandora Production Thailand
My first impression was the sheer size of the entire compound. Gemopolis Industrial Estate is home to 145 companies from 28 countries, and PPT moved here in 2003 and opened its first large-scale, four-storey, fully-owned crafting facility two years later. Today PPT owns no less than eight buildings – at the heart of this is the state-of-the-art Innovation Centre opened in 2013 – and a shuttle service is available for bringing Pandora employees from one building to another.
Transportation is also provided beyond the factory premises, with PPT chartering up to 100 buses a day (70 for day shift workers and 30 for the night shift) to take workers – many of whom live in villages outside Bangkok – to and from work.
Pandora Production Thailand: a second home to 8,000 workers
We arrived in the midst of HROD (Human Resources & Organizational Development) Day celebrations (below), with booths for games and food, as well as live performances. The atmosphere was lively and everyone was warm and welcoming; even the typically stony-faced security officers had smiles that could light up a room.
Pandora Visual Merchandising & Training Manager Andrea Lancaster puts her game face on for Pandora Production Thailand’s HROD Day
Speaking of rooms, my first surprise upon entering the factory building was the fact that almost every single room was air-conditioned. Workers were clad in safety goggles and smart red uniforms; there were even specially designed attire for pregnant employees.
Pandora’s jewellery is designed by an in-house design team in Copenhagen and the prototype created at PPT, where it is produced and hand-finished by the highly skilled workers. Each piece of jewellery passes through at least 12 different departments and 25-35 pairs of hands, undergoing 20 processes, from assembly, grinding and polishing, to stone setting and quality control. The meticulous attention to detail is staggering, and even more so if you consider the fact that 79 million jewellery pieces were produced in 2013.
Each worker undergoes seven months of training, and it was a real privilege to see these skilled craftsmen at work. As a treat, we were given a chance to take a shot at making our very own Murano glass charm. Let me just say that it is harder than it looks, I definitely need to work on my psychomotor skills, and I will most definitely not be giving up my day job. On the upside, I now have a Pandora charm that is one of a kind. Any takers?
According to our lovely guide Ketsarin Koetkrung, Assistant Manager of Business Communications of Pandora Production, PPT employees are paid by the number of hours worked rather than pieces made. Working days are Mondays to Fridays, with 9.5-hour shifts for day and night. Overtime – which pays double – is strictly voluntary and only permitted from Mondays to Wednesdays and on Saturdays, and working hours (with overtime) are capped at 60 hours a week, 24 hours less than the maximum stipulated by Thai labour laws. A financial literary training programme is also available to employees to help them manage their money.
Besides free transportation and competitive wages, employees also have access to free meals, health and safety insurance, a provident fund, as well as maternity and paternity leave (up to 90 days and three days respectively). Pregnant employees also have special breaks and maternity classes, and even baby bump-friendly uniform. These pro-family benefits really impressed me, as my fellow Singaporeans covered by the Employment act are given 12 weeks of maternity leave and a week of paternity leave, and in Thailand only male civil servants are entitled to paternity leave.
So it seems employees are more than adequately covered in terms of compensation and benefits, but still Pandora strives to provide beyond these basic requirements. “A lot of companies think: ‘employee relations’. For us, it’s about a relationship,” said Pandora Production Chief Operations Officer Group Manufacturing John Murphy. “We are certainly a business but what’s really important for us – and it’s more than just something we put up on a PowerPoint slide during orientation – are our values. I think what is quite different about Pandora’s core values is that they emerged and were then written down, as opposed to some senior leaders going off to a workshop and saying, ‘Let these be our values’. It was more like the values were recognised and then put in writing.”
The challenge, Murphy added, is not in finding skilled workers. There is no lack in people wanting to work for PPT; its previous recruitment exercises have attracted thousands of hopeful applicants who turn up in droves to start queuing at 3am. The real challenge, he revealed, is in inculcating Pandora’s three core values – pride, passion and performance – in such a large and rapidly growing workforce, the majority of which were absent in the beginning of Pandora’s journey. More than 50% of PPT’s employees have been working in the facilities for less than three years, and with a new factory building to open next year, the company is slated for another surge in worker numbers. How do you create a sense of community and belonging with so many people?
You start with providing a great social environment. During breaks and before or after work, employees can head to the Edutainment Centre – which has computers, Internet access and a library – to learn and relax. PPT even has an in-house radio station, manned by its own DJs, and TV station, which broadcasts its own soap operas, sports news, etc. There’s a sporting centre with a basketball court and a wide range of clubs to join, and social events – such as the Pandora’s Got Talent competition – take place on a monthly basis. The two biggest events of the year are the company outing in February, where employees can choose to go to the beach or amusement park with their families; and the end-of-year ‘Thank You’ theme party, featuring famous Thai bands requested by the employees.
All these certainly made me feel like I was back in university. The average age of the employees is about 27 years old, and a good percentage will likely have a long term plan to further their careers. Beyond technical training, PPT has established several professional and personal development programmes aimed at honing their life skills, as well as scholarships. There are plenty of opportunities for advancement, with cases of production workers being promoted to managerial positions. Diversity is also championed – the gender mix in production is about 50/50, and Pandora strives to ensure that participants in its leadership programmes mirror the gender composition in the group’s management positions.
Employees are also empowered to raise any issues and concerns in monthly meetings and regular consultations with human resources. Discussions thus far have spawned new uniform rules, improved jewellery crafting tools and an on-site convenience store. It’s no wonder that Pandora was named ‘Employer of the Year’ at the 2014 Jewellery News Asia Awards.
“When our colleagues come to work, they don’t just bring their hands; they bring their hearts, their minds, their hopes, their fears and their aspirations. And we try to provide an environment in which their hopes and aspirations can be fulfilled and where they get true satisfaction in expressing themselves through their work. All of this combines to create what I think is an amazing company,” Murphy said. I can’t agree more.
If there was still a shadow of a doubt on the mutual commitment between Pandora and its employees, it was completely dispelled after speaking to Fani Pediou and Mariana Nikonenko, who had accompanied me on the factory tour. These two ladies are Pandora’s sales staff from Larnaca International Airport, and they were in Bangkok for the first time courtesy of Pandora, as a reward for their exceptional performance in the company’s mystery shopping test held earlier this year.
Mariana Nikonenko (left) and Fani Pediou proudly hold up their honorary plaque in recognition of their customer service excellence
When Fani and Mariana were told that they would be going on an all-expenses paid holiday to Bangkok, they were shocked and delighted to tears. Even at the end of the trip, they still could not believe they were in Thailand. “It is like a dream!” Fani exclaimed. Mariana, whose birthday was on 11 November, the day they departed Cyprus on the trip, said this was her biggest and best birthday present yet. As the first point of contact with the consumer, sales staff have an important ambassadorial role to play, and it was heartening to see companies like Pandora recognising their contributions.
Fani has been working for Pandora for five years, and she achieved one of the biggest sales in her career within a month of service, selling about €7,800 worth of gold bracelets and charms to two Russian couples. She’s also managed to convince a male customer who originally intended to buy an item for his wife, to buy 12 charms for a host of other family members. Her secret to good customer service? “To listen to the customer and to ask the right questions. What are they looking for, is it for themselves or a gift for others – these are all techniques that we learnt in product training.”
The Pandora ladies in Bangkok, a city that holds special significance as the brand’s production base. The trip also marks Fani and Mariana’s first visit to Thailand.
When I asked what their most memorable experience of serving a customer was, Mariana recalled a stern-looking Russian gentleman who came in with his female companion – either his wife or his girlfriend – looking for a gift for his daughter. His partner, who wasn’t familiar with Pandora, eyed the selection questionably and, with her nose turned up, asked the man: “What on earth are you buying?” The man, without missing a beat, replied: “Pandora is a brand we like and respect very much. You know nothing, so keep quiet!” How about that for customer loyalty? I’ll bet that made for a very fun airplane ride afterwards…
As I spoke to them both, it was obvious how much pride they had in their work and how happy they were to be working for Pandora. Mariana said she cried when she was first transferred to Pandora from the fashion department of Cyprus Airports Duty Free, but today – one and a half years later – she couldn’t imagine working for any other brand. “We love our job – we do this with love,” she gushed, as Fani nodded in agreement.
Dear readers, you can’t make this stuff up. I have been to Bangkok several times before, but this trip has opened my eyes to a side of it I’ve never seen before. The hope and aspirations of driven, young people who are looking for a better life, a life that can so easily be denied them under unscrupulous and uncaring employers. A recent study by the University of Warwick showed that happiness can boost employee productivity by up to +12%, and it’s evident that Pandora was way ahead of the pack. It’s high time for everyone else to raise the bar.
Thank you Pandora for the once-in-a-lifetime experience