In Thailand, more than 10 million people work in the informal economy outside agriculture. Tourism normally accounts for a significant proportion of the economy. Workers in these sectors were hit hardest by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following a partial lockdown in Bangkok, the government has approved some relief measures for informal workers. The most important is a 5,000 baht handout (USD 150), which workers must register for through a telephone app or online. Those in formal employment must continue to receive a portion of their salary if their place of work closes, according to the Labour Protection Act.
But these state-run initiatives must be complemented by civil society. Some organizations are already helping out, such as HomeNet Foundation, a non-government organization that supports home-based workers across Thailand. More involvement from other sectors is needed, including academia and trade unions.
The majority of Thailand’s street vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers has been unable to work since the pandemic prompted a soft lockdown of large parts of the country, explains Poonsap S. Tulaphan, Director of the HomeNet Foundation. “Some can work, but their income is decreasing to only USD 3–USD 6 per day, which is not enough to buy food and sanitizers to protect their health.”
"When it comes to home-based workers, their condition is slightly better,” she adds. “They can produce face masks for sale. Domestic workers can keep their jobs if they are live-in and can stay in their employer’s home. But some living on their own have lost their job because their employer wanted to practise social distancing and keep non-family members out of the home."
HomeNet has taken steps to help informal workers who have lost their income source. They submitted policy recommendations to the Ministry of Labour and produced a video to help informal workers understand how to apply for the government handout. Together with a team of researchers from Chulalongkorn University’s Social Research Institute, HomeNet is now developing policy recommendations based on data they are collecting on the current situation of workers to assess if they are eligible for government assistance.
Formal workers, particularly those in the tourism sector, have also been extremely hard hit. Of the roughly 1.6 million people who work in hotels nationwide, nearly 980,000 live on the minimum wage of approximately USD 10 per day. At the time of writing, 95 per cent of the country’s hotels had no income at all and could not pay wages. But only if the hotels are closed by order of the authorities can employees receive 62 per cent of their salary from the Social Security Fund for three months. While employers are demanding an official order to close all hotels, the government has only ordered their closure in a few provinces.
"All the workers on the tourist island of Phuket have been affected," says Vijit Dasantad, President of the Phuket Federation of Hotel and Service Labor. "There are only three unions of hotel workers in this province, he explains. In contrast to the rest of the approximately 35,000 hotel workers in Phuket, his federation’s 500 members were able to negotiate partial or full payment during the shutdown.
Economist Kiriya Kulkolkarn of Bangkok’s Thammasat University has welcomed the state interventions but questioned whether they are sustainable. "The government should support hotel businesses,” he says. "But as this crisis seems to be a long one, most industries will be affected. My concern is that the government won’t have enough money for all in the future. We need to think about other initiatives."
The way forward
At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, income insecurity is the most pressing problem for many workers. While the 5,000-baht handout is very helpful for informal workers, similar relief should be provided to formal workers forced to take leave with low or no pay.
Looking ahead, the challenge for labour in the longer term is likely to be job loss. There are pre-existing government skills development schemes, but so far none have been designed or altered to respond to the specific needs caused by the pandemic and its consequences. This must be followed up, with an eye on the lessons learned from past crises and in other countries.
Non-state actors have a range of invaluable roles in facing this complex challenge. The media have been helping to give voice to the problems and needs of workers, especially informal workers. The network of HomeNet and other NGOs has demonstrated the potential to support informal workers and is planning more initiatives to apply their experience and knowledge intensively.
For their part, trade unions in the formal sector have so far not been very active but could be potential actors because they are legitimate representatives of workers. They should collaborate with other civil society groups, notably academics, who could provide them with systemic information to help them organize, advocate and negotiate.
Preeda Sirisawat is an academic advisor and program manager at FES Thailand.
The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.
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