Notes from the Field

Global Recession Strikes Thailand’s Workers, New Center Gives Voice

March 24, 2010

Last week, I found myself sitting in a cramped room on the top floor of a hired shop-house in a northern suburb of Bangkok, Thailand. The faded curtains drawn across the windows were no match for the blistering hot sun – the room was warm and airless. Some 40 people had crowded into the small space and were seated on plastic chairs, patiently listening to the speeches for the opening of the new Labor Crisis Center in Bangkok.

The chairs were filled with determined labor union leaders, esteemed professors of labor law, lawyers overseeing labor cases, and staff from labor-related civil society groups. There was a stony-faced union leader from Rayong province who was fighting for the rights of scores of factory workers being penalized and fined by an international automobile factory. On the other side of the room was a timid-looking woman who spoke passionately for hundreds of workers from her factory. Though it was a small crowd, the individuals gathered in that room collectively represented many thousands more.

The global financial crisis presents developing Asia with its most difficult economic challenges in recent times, according to a 2009 statement by the Asian Development Bank, which also predicted already-fallen growth rates to drop even further. In Thailand, data indicates that migrant workers, one of the most socially fragile groups in developing economies, have been severely affected by the financial crisis, particularly women workers who are the majority in labor-intensive industries such as garment, textile, and electronics production.

One man boldly set the tone at the opening, when he declared: “The government says publicly that the economy is getting better, but better for who? Certainly not for us workers!”

Based on anecdotal information gathered from clients who have come to the Center seeking assistance, we have learned that all across Thailand, factory owners hit hard by the economic crises have laid off workers, while many of those who remain employed have had their hours and wages reduced. We have also heard many stories where employees have been laid off with little or no compensation payments. Workers have been pressured to leave as their employers have forced them to relocate to factories far from their place of residence. Salaried employees are being re-hired as day laborers, which means they do the same work for less pay, with no security or insurance.

In almost all of the cases that we’ve heard, the affected workers lack resources to seek legal recourse. Many already live hand-to-mouth and simply don’t have the extra finances or time that would enable them to fight for their rights.

To address these growing problems, The Asia Foundation established the Labor Crisis Center, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Center is headquartered in Bangkok and has outreach posts in industrial zones around the capital and in the Northeast, where most migrant laborers come from. Representing a new model for assisting workers in Thailand, the Center provides counseling services to workers who have been laid off as well as pro bono legal aid to help workers fight for their labor rights, such as fair compensation, proper benefits, or the right to organize a union. In cases of urgent need, the Center can give desperate, jobless workers economic and social support grants in the form of emergency shelter, food, and health care. With an eye to longer-term solutions for workers in Thailand, the Center will also compile the labor issues raised at the Center into an information database that will help establish stronger precedents for settlement of legal cases and advance positive changes in labor laws.

Improving workers’ rights in Thailand is not easy. The workers that we met here have hardly any social safety nets to rely on, while the civil society organizations that work on their behalf are chronically under-funded. Brave labor union leaders who speak out against injustice and abuse often face intimidation and violence at the hands of rogue factory owners. But the people I met in that small room were dedicated to helping wrongfully dismissed and laid-off workers and reforming labor laws to better protect their fellow employees. The Labor Crisis Center can serve as a rallying point and a source of much-needed legal advice and expertise. It can be a place where people begin to establish better conditions and protection for workers throughout the country.

The starting point – that moment before a vision is about to be realized – is an exciting time in any venture, and this particular meeting conjured up the powerful words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he was speaking about the American Labor movement, and I repeated them in my opening remarks to the people gathered there:

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.” 

I closed my remarks with the importance of “dreaming big,” and Sunee Chaiwarose, a former human rights commissioner and close colleague of The Asia Foundation in Thailand, translated my final words into Thai. In its translated form, the meaning of the phrase I had used was slightly changed, and perhaps even more apt. To dream big in Thai is best translated as fahn klai which means, literally, to “dream far.”

Pauline Tweedie is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Thailand. She can be reached at ptweedie@asiafound.org.

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