The junta has pledged to improve workers’ quality of life, so why is it ignoring their modest demands and sending soldiers to intimidate labour leaders?
The male officers then asked her to cancel her plan to submit a petition to the prime minister at Government House urging assistance for 600 workers who were laid off in December.
Wilaiwan, however, is adamant that the workers are in need of urgent help from those in power.
“We have been trailed by military men since late last year when we started working to help the 600. The issue here concerns the basic needs of the workers; there is no political agenda. I told them [the soldiers] that there was no need to follow us like this. It makes us feel unsafe,” said the labour leader.
“The visit at night by male officers to our dormitory made some of us nervous. I myself didn’t feel that bad. I just told them it would not make them look good,” she said.
A daughter of farmers in the Northeast, Wilaiwan moved to Bangkok for work at age 19, like many other young women at that time. She found a job at a sock and textile factory in the suburbs of Bangkok.
Over 30 years later she is still working at the same factory. She started on a daily wage of Bt20, which has since risen to the current rate of Bt319. Though that is higher than many similar factories pay, it’s still only Bt19 above the national minimum wage.
This is despite pledges made by the current government to improve the quality of life for workers. Judging by the situation of Wilaiwan and her fellow factory workers, those pledges are not being met.
Her reward for experience gained in over three decades at the same workplace is Bt19 above the minimum wage – equivalent to a bottle of green tea. This shows that government initiatives for workers’ skill development have never reached those who just earn just enough for each day.
Known as “sister Wi” when she first started at the factory, Wilaiwan eventually became “Auntie Wi” to her colleagues. She has now spent half her life amid the noise and dust of the factory, just to earn sufficient to get by for another day.
“Is that enough? I would say my wage is not enough. When I earned Bt50 to Bt60 per day it was better, as the cost of living at that time was still low. How do we survive? Only on overtime payments. We work for many extra hours to earn enough to pay all the instalments. Even our daily rice is bought on instalments. We just don’t have enough cash.”
Wilaiwan’s story is a perfect illustration of the difficulties faced by millions of Thai blue-collar workers.
In 1983, she joined a trade union. A year later she became a member of the Labour Solidarity Network, which campaigns for better wages and benefits. Many of the standards now enshrined in Thai labour law are the fruit of the Network’s efforts, including three-month paid maternity leave, the social security fund and the nationwide minimum wage.
At 50, Wilaiwan realises that the hopes she and her peers had when they first started working have faded to almost nothing. Modest dreams of retiring to run a small grocery shop in their home villages now seem far too ambitious for people who need to work each day just to earn enough to feed themselves.
The life of blue-collar workers in Thailand has never been easy, but it’s getting more difficult in the current political and economic atmosphere. The national minimum wage hasn’t been raised for years. The government seems content to simply ignore the very modest demands of the millions of workers who contribute massively to the development of the country’s economy. Meanwhile in factories, benefits offered by employers are limited and often deducted for arbitrary reasons.
Demands of the labour movement are often perceived by government agencies as obstacles to Thailand’s economic strategy.
As such, the roots of labour issues are completely overlooked by those in power.
Our experience shows that during periods of junta rule, labour leaders are closely monitored, threatened, and in some cases even “disappeared”. Distrust of the labour movement among the powers-that-be in Thailand is deep-seated and longstanding.
Under our current period of military rule we must hope that Wilaiwan, one of only a few prominent Thai labour leaders, is offered the safety and the room to realise her demands for workers’ rights.
Special to The Nation
January 28, 2016
Paskorn Jumlongrach is the editor of www.transbordernews.in.th