by Patchanee Kumnak, December 2019
General social context of Thailand
- Economic development is slowing down
- Factories closed down as economy is slowing down. Employers apply the labour law allowing enforcing 75% of salary. They also lay off workers in garment, automobile, electronics, electric appliances, chemical products sectors and so on.
- Around 44,000 workers are laid off (as of December 2019) and many are cheated their wages and compensation. Women workers are laid off: some are pregnant, many are young and middle-aged. Some cases can be fixed, the other cannot.
- Union weakening and busting during these times such as decreasing Triumph International labour union members.
- Dramatic cases appear on media coverage: workers and small entrepreneurs committed suicide; almost empty markets happen around.
2. Monopoly corporates have been granted for concessions by the military and current government to run mega project development such as Eastern Economic Corridor, Pracharat partnership model, etc.
3. Nationwide human rights violation oppressing the right to rally/organize of activists. More repressive laws are regulated and measures used by authorities since the 2014 military coup and administration.
4. People movement is rising up to express their dissatisfying with the government’s administration and the Constitution Law.
- Economic recession and impacts toward workers
- Political economy’s environment under the elected government
- Labour movement’s response to economic and political conflicts
I. Economic recession in 2019
- Thai Baht currency has been strong since mid-year 2019.
- GDP drops from 3.5% to 2.7%. Orders reduced. Export is affected.
- Massive workers dismissal. Thousand enterprises shut-down
- Generalized System of Preference (GSP) of the USA granted for Thailand is cut because of weak protection of labour rights.
- Some big corporates gain wealthy from the government’s economic policies: Eastern economic corridor, Pracharat Partnership (corporation between private and government sectors)
- Massive dismissal, i.e. 300 workers laid off at General Motors company in August, Apex Circuit dismissed 200 workers in probation in Sept., SRF Industries dismissed 400 workers in October, 350 Triumph brand/Body Fashion aged workers (50 years) in November 2019.
Problems confronting workers in Thailand:
- Early retirement project
- Sub-contract workers dismissed
- Dismissal without compensation (opportunists) and dismissal for reducing costs
- Temporary and permanent shut-down of factories
- Permanent shut-down, i.e. Sanyo’s supplier (mold production) in July
- Temporary shut-down because of no or lower orders, employer can pay 75% of normal pay to employees as law stated such as Nippon Steel Processing but stop production only for one day on 9 Nov., Thai Summit (automobile parts)
- OT reduces, less orders from foreign countries
Conditions of employment are changed from temporary employees into outsourced employees in public education sector such as teacher, security, clerks, etc. (77,000 employees) by the basic education office in Oct.
- More Thai workers in rural area work abroad: Korea
- More workers are pushed to informal sector.
Implication to labour issues
- From the structured of workforce, there are less formal workers in non-agricultural sector, about 860,000 people.
- Unemployment rate is 1.0%, more than last year (more 12,000 unemployed workers in Sept.2018)
- Although there are little more employed workers in August, but the labour trend is massive dismissal due to less export.
- There are less number of workers in non-agricultural sector from last year: total reducing 860,000 workers, mostly reducing in manufacturing (470,000), construction (130,000)
- Low skilled workers and aged workers are pushed to informal sector, so the employment rate in the sector is about 61%-69%.
- There are less workers protected from the security fund, now total number is 11.687 million workers.
II. Political economy’s environment under the elected government
- Eastern economic corridor: conflicts between the government, corporates and communities
- Political repression under the 2017 Constitution Law
- Limitation of freedom of expression
- Bully of people’s political party: Future Forward Party
3. Labour movement’s response to economic and political conflicts
- Labour unions and activists join new political parties: Future Forward and the Commoners Party
- Movement on wage increasing, welfare state campaigning as parties promising.
- Thai political issues are put into the parliament.
- Weak organizing work on the ground, small number of protest and resisistance on the street
- State repression on freedom of expression by decriminalizing activists by laws. (national security comes before freedom of people)
- State excludes people partnership from the development.
- Strengthen organizing work on the ground
Barriers of workers’ organizing in Thailand
According to the current situation, it was found that Thai labor assembly in different sector or in various workplaces is still limited. Total labor force in Thailand is 37.7 million people in non-agricultural sector, 24.2 million people and agriculture sector 13million people, and the rest is unemployed (3.9 hundred thousand people) and seasonal work (1.2 hundred thousand people) (National Statistical Office 2019)
The writer is interested in the non-agricultural sector, which is divided into 19 sectors of the industry: factories, education, public health, hotels, construction, finance, retailers, domestic work, etc. But unionizing is limited. There are now approximately 620,000 union members. State enterprises (175,383union members in 47 organizations) and the private sector (447,612 union members in 1,398organizations) (Department of Labor Protection and Welfare 2017). In addition, employees in government sector have their union as well as informal labor network such as informal workers network, migrant workers network, etc. Some of them can not register as labor unions and they are encountering obstacles in registering.
The points are
- the existence of the labour groups both in the form of union and network have still encountered obstacles in their work, especially the class and power regime of a small number of ruling people. Still they are expanding members to have the power to press the state and employer to stop infringement and increase benefits of workers, and
2) as some sectors grow, such as the service sector; there is little or no officially labour assembly. It should be workers’ organizing to improve labour conditions, rights and freedom in the world of work.
The writer views that culture of assembly and freedom of expression are the values of democratic governance which will strengthen people’s bargaining power to determine their own future from the bottom to the top. Therefore, the project would like to conclude lessons of workers’ organizing in order to create mutual learning among workers, to break the mental block and to eliminate fear. We need to create a motivation for people to see the value of workers’ organizing to protect labor rights, human rights and democracy. And then the beneficiaries which are consumers as the result of good service and working conditions of the workers. In short, if workers are not treated well by employers, it can affect the quality of production of goods and services and affecting consumers, the public, and the environment in a wide range.
Assumption of barriers of workers’ organizing
Military dictatorship: barriers to the growth of labor movement and democracy (A lesson learned from the coup since 2006 and 2014)
When the unions’ struggle reaches to a certain point, it will be controlled and stuck because of the power regime embedded in Thai bureaucratic system due to the long-standing influence of military. As a result, we must pay more attention to organize progressive and democratic trade unions and labour groups which can enhance progressive issues, liberty and welfares for everyone. Basically, if there is no workers’ organizing or unionizing, the violation of the rights and freedoms of workers cannot be solved. And the political ideas that should be taken up now are eliminating influence of the military power that controls the administrative system. Therefore, the direction of the movement is: workers must fight for democracy by expelling the Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-O-cha and cancel military service, reduce military’s and interior ministry’s budgets, decentralize governing and create a welfare state together with job security.
สำนักงานสถิติแห่งชาติ (National Statistics Office) กระทรวงดิจิทัลเพื่อเศรษฐกิจและสังคม. สรุปผลการสำรวจภาวะการทำงานของประชากรเดือนกันยายน 2562. สืบค้นจาก www.nso.go.th/sites/2014/DocLib13/ด้านสังคม/สาขาแรงงาน/ภาวะการทำงานของประชากร/2562/Report_09-62.pdf
 สำนักแรงงานสัมพันธ์ (Bureau of Labour Relations) กรมสวัสดิการและคุ้มครองแรงงาน. (มกราคม 2560). จำนวนองค์การแรงงานทั่วราชอาณาจักร ณ วันที่ 31 มกราคม 2560.
Patchanee Kumnak is a labour activist in Thailand.