It is time to revise our definition of ‘the labour movement’ in Thailand

Looking at the past to find changing meanings of the ‘labour movement’: Historian Sakdina Chatrakul Na Ayudhya takes a close look at the history of unions in Thailand and finds that innovative steps are needed to make the movement fit for the future.

‘The Labour Movement’ means what?

In the past, the labour movement referred to the organising of workers, employed across a diverse range of occupations, to build a collective power to negotiate and fight for labour’s shared interests. The labour movement encompassed a diversity of workers and its aims were not simply limited to improving wages, welfare or working conditions. Rather, those aims extended into the political arena as well. General strikes or political strikes were important tools once used by labour movements. Organised labour’s politically directed efforts meant that alliances were forged with political parties. In some countries, labour movements established their own political parties or gained significant influence inside those parties chosen to represent their political interests.

Nowadays, ‘the labour movement’ is generally equated with the ‘trade union movement’ the operations of which are limited to representing those workers who enjoy formal legal coverage. Huge numbers of workers are prevented from becoming members of trade unions. This more restrictive understanding of ‘the labour movement’ is one reason why labour movements in a number of countries are often small and have limited reach. This view of the meaning of ‘labour movements’ is one which excludes the vast majority of workers. In turn, this has a negative impact on labour’s representation and diminishes workers’ bargaining power. State and capital have successfully split and channelled workers into different categories and so fostered a sense of difference among labour and a feeling among some workers that they are not part of the working class. This has been achieved through the development of different forms of production and employment, for example, supply chains, outsourcing and platform employment. It has also been achieved through the introduction of laws which divide workers into formal and informal sectors. All of this combines to cultivate views, beliefs and understandings that split and separate workers from each other.

As a result, shared consciousness of class has been radically attacked and undermined. Workers lack unity and strength. The Thai labour movement is weak and small in terms of numbers of trade union members. Indeed, it is one of the weakest in the world. In a workforce of 39 million, only 614,312 or just 1.6% are members of a trade union. Moreover, the Thai trade union movement is divided into 1,465 small house unions. At a national level, there are 15 different labour councils (data from Ministry of Labour, November 2020). All of this reflects a lack of unity and limited bargaining power.

In the attempt to re-establish and re-build strong labour movements, workers in different countries around the world aim to tear down the walls that restrict their freedom to organise collectively. This has included efforts to revisit previous understandings of labour movements that will reach out and represent workers from all economic sectors. The establishment of National or General Unions is the subject of serious discussion and debate. Campaigns under the banner ‘We are all workers’ seek to build consciousness of class and collectively organise all workers and so construct labour movements that are strong and powerful.


What do workers hope for from efforts to collectively organise?

When we speak of workers’ interests which labour movements aim to advance, we speak of economic stability, social protections, and political bargaining power. Workers organise collectively to achieve stability in employment, and to have some guarantee that they will not lose their jobs or be unfairly dismissed. They expect that labour movements will ensure that they receive a fair wage for their work, that workplaces are safe, and they are protected against workplace illnesses and injuries. Workers need to participate in the decisions that affect them, the quality of their lives and the lives of their families. Workers expect that by collectively organising, their workplace appeals and grievances will be fairly listened to by employers and the state. They do not expect that everything will be solely determined by employers and the state—a condition that means they would have no guarantee to be treated justly. Workers organise to ensure that they are properly acknowledged by employers as well as society. Often workers are seen as second-class citizens. However, when workers organise, they are empowered and able to ensure that others treat them fairly and equally. Workers are the majority in society. Labour movements aim to ensure that workers are able to participate in shaping the fate and directions of their country. In many countries, workers have their own political parties and seek to ensure that their government represent the majority in society—the working class.


When Trade Unionists speak of ‘labour’ what do they mean?

Forms of employment have changed dramatically and become much more complex over the past 20 or 30 years. New types of employment have proliferated and employment conditions vary widely. Post-Fordist production systems that rely on of supply-chains have led to the enormous growth of Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Large number of workers are employed outside factory walls and now labour in what is called the ‘informal sector’. Despite their enormous numbers, these workers are often ignored and overlooked. The growth of digital economies has created new forms of employment, with millions of workers now employed via social platforms.

Today, when we speak of labour or labour movements, we are likely to be referring to workers employed in factories or workers in the informal sector who have a single employer. In Thailand, this understanding is the product of the 1975 Labour Relations Act, as well as the practices of the labour movement from half a century ago, practices linked to the experiences of organising of workers in the manufacturing sector. However, if we look beyond the factory gates, it is clear that there are millions of other workers of many different types and employed in many different ways. Such workers now form the majority our total labour force. Over the recent past, the Thai labour movement has tended to ignore these workers and because of this it can no longer lay claim to be a true representative of the interests of all workers.

In the light of all these changes, it is necessary to rethink and redefine what we mean by ‘labour’ so as to ensure that all those workers who have been ignored for so long can also be incorporated into the labour movement. In the Philippines, for example, the progressive wing of the labour movement has endeavoured to provide a new definition of labour as referring to ‘…those who do not own the capital or the machinery required to produce goods or services solely by themselves…this includes those independent owners of firms who possess some capital and tools or machinery but are unable to employ the numbers of workers found in larger enterprises. That is, those people who occupy places on the fringe or margins when compared to the majority of employers or owners of enterprises.

In truth, the claim ‘We are all workers’ means we are part of the 99% who are subject to the 1%—the billionaires who control the vast majority of our country’s wealth and resources.


Looking at the past to find changing meanings of the ‘labour movement’ in Thailand

It is clear that the meaning of the phrase the ‘Thai labour movement’ has never had a fixed definition. Across different historical periods, ‘the Thai labour movement’ has been defined in contrasting ways. When capitalism first emerged during the Rattanakosin period, the majority of wage workers were Chinese immigrants. They brought their own cultural types of organisation to Siam. Their organisations assumed different forms, an important one being the ‘Angyi’ or ‘Secret Society’ which maintained their own sets of rules and collected fees from members. Some have suggested that they actually represented the first form of ‘trade unionism’ in Thailand. Though not all members were wage workers, Secret Societies did lead many strikes on behalf of Chinese workers. In 1897 the Thai government promulgated a law, known as the ‘Angyi’ or Secret Society law, that forced organisations to register their activities. Nonetheless, throughout the period of the absolute monarchy not one single labour organisation was permitted to officially register. As a result, during that early period, the Thai labour movement needs to be understood as encompassing those struggles by Chinese workers—struggle that assumed different forms, sometimes conducted openly and sometimes conducted underground.

As the wage labour market expanded, especially during the period just prior to the 1932 change in government, the meaning of the labour movement also expanded to encompass a movement of intellectuals led by Thawat Rittidet, Wat Sunthoracam, Sun Kitcamnong and their comrades. Together they formed the “Labour Group’ and established the Kammakon (Labour) newspaper. They organised in the form of an association (samakhom) which was granted official registration once the absolute monarchy ended following the 1932 change in regime. The Thai Tramways Association of Siam, registered in August 1932, was the first labour organisation to be accorded legal recognition by the Thai state.

Following the 1932 change in government, the labour movement was defined by myriad forms of struggle by different types of workers. These struggles did not only include factory workers but also the unemployed, rickshaw pullers, Chinese coolies, intellectuals, as well as the self-employed. Thawat Rittidet established the ‘Labour Benevolent Association’, a national level labour organisation, that aimed to represent workers across all sectors of the economy. Thawat and his group supported Pridi Phanomyong’s economic plan, a stance which led them into open opposition to the views of King Prajadiphok (Rama 7). The labour movement also supported the People’s Party government and opposed the 1933 coup attempt led by Prince Bowaradet.

During WWII, one wing of the labour movement operated underground and joined the movement for national salvation that opposed the Phibun government and the Japanese occupation. At the end of the war, the underground labour movement began to operate publicly as the ‘Association of United Workers’ (AUW), an organisation open to workers from all economic sectors. The AUW had a large membership and established its own political party, named the Cooperative Party. Thianthai Apichatbut was president of the AUW—renamed the Association of United Workers of Thailand—and secretary of the Cooperative Party.

The Cooperative Party began as part of the governing coalition led by Pridi Phanomyong. The meaning of the ‘labour movement’ once again widened. Despite the 1947 coup, the labour movement led by the Association of Thai Workers (ATW) through the 1950s and, in the latter stages of that decade, under the leadership of the 16 Labour Units organisation, attracted large numbers of different groups of workers. The movement was able to press for the passing of the first Labour Act in 1956.

The coup led by Sarit Thanarat on 20 October 1958 effectively outlawed the labour movement. Many trade unionists were arrested and imprisoned. Suphachai Srisati, an important intellectual of the labour movement, was executed under Section 17 of the Anti-Communist Act. He was denied the right to trial and just legal process. During the Sarit-Thanom period, and under the auspices of the United States, Thailand moved increasingly toward free market capitalism. A series of economic plans and various other measures were adopted to promote private capital investment. Labour rights were curtailed so as to create a favourable climate for US and Japanese investors. These investors brought with them labour relations practices that emphasised enterprise level negotiations and workplace bargaining. When workers were allowed to organise once again in 1972 following the issuing of Revolutionary Announcement 103, and as democratic rights and guarantees were reinstated after the events of 14 October 1973, the labour movement was able to once again re-form. The progressive wing of the movement held the view that the labour movement should not be limited to include only those employed in factories.

At that time, the labour movement worked with employees across all economic sectors. It also contributed to the formation of the ‘Triple Alliance’, a cooperative movement involving workers, farmers and students. This empowered the labour movement at a time when state and capital were trying to impose restrictions on the movement by winnowing out some workers and various other groups. The 1975 Labour Relations Act (LRA) established a narrow set of parameters within which the labour movement could operate. After the events of October 6 1976, the LRA was vigorously enforced and the labour movement was effectively redefined solely as a trade union movement of permanently employed formal sector workers. Other workers were gradually excluded. Bit by bit legislation was passed that prohibited large numbers of workers from accessing rights to organise. This included school teachers, university academics, employees of public agencies and other government corporations. When the National Peacekeeping Council (NPKC) seized power in February 1991, they attempted to separate state enterprise employees from the labour movement. NPKC Order 54 imposed other restrictions, limiting the capacity of outsiders to offer advice to trade unions during processes of collective bargaining. Union advisors had to first be granted formal registration by the Director of the Department of Labour.

For almost 50 years, the Thai labour movement has been effectively restricted to operating within a framework that narrows its meaning and reach. The result is a movement that is small, unable to grow its membership base, and is basically confined to bargaining over bread-and-butter issues. It is unable to effectively protect the interests of workers or solve their problems. It lacks strength and has lost its power to exercise a political voice. The fixing of public policies, regulations and laws now rests exclusively in the hands of those who represents the interests of capital.

Can Trade Unions still be the answer for workers today?

The situation today sees large numbers of workers, not only those in Thailand, turning their backs on trade unions. Trade unions no longer exercise the prestige or the same kind of spell that, during their heyday, attracted workers. Unions, once viewed globally as the ultimate weapon of the working class, are now facing questions as to whether they hold any power or authority at all. Trade unions once represented the power of the working masses and were effective negotiating tools. Can the retreat of labour movements be arrested? If so, what is going to best galvanise trade unionists into action?

In the history of progressive wings of labour movements, two main streams of thought have continually exercised influence. The first of these holds that the role of labour movements is to serve as tools of the proletariat to change society by overthrowing the capitalist system—the source of workers’ exploitation. A second position asserts that labour movements are tools which workers can use to reform capitalism, and ensure that workers are treated fairly and not exploited by their employers. This view, which accepts the continued existence of capitalism, exercised major influence over the majority of labour movements within capitalist societies during the course of the twentieth century. It is a position that is sometimes called ‘reformist trade unionism’ or ‘business trade unionism’.

Within this framework, the labour movement is viewed as partnering with capital. It is split into various organisations that pursue different activities at, for example, enterprise or industrial levels. Capital recognises the role of labour movements as they do not challenge the system as a whole. However, after the victory of neoliberal globalisation alongside the disintegration of communist and socialist systems during the 1980s, labour movements have been in retreat everywhere. Even those reformists movements which have been willing to work with capital are now rejected. Capital has endeavoured to further limit their role.

In Europe, reformist labour movements developed considerable strength and were accepted by capital. Today, employers now refuse to meet them at the negotiating table. Union membership has dwindled. European labour movements still believe they can revitalise themselves and resurrect their role as protectors of workers’ interests. However, as social environments have changed, this will not be easy. Some hope to be able to establish labour or social democratic parties to serve as the voice of workers, capable of winning elections and becoming part of government, and able to change laws and so ensure that capital once again accepts trade unions as negotiating partners. Some European labour movements have employed a strategy of amalgamation in the belief that larger bodies will strengthen their hand. However, in many places the labour movement remains weak, and amalgamation has created unwieldly and increasingly bureaucratic organisations.

However, in other places, European labour movements have abandoned business unionism and been organising groups of marginal workers not previously targeted by trade unions. These have included migrant workers, the unemployed and those employed in informal economic sectors. Even though labour movements have become smaller, and their work has become increasingly difficult, many still see them as the best tool for protecting the interests of the working masses. However, they must adjust to changed circumstances. Labour movements are still an answer for workers and the building of just societies.


Bold New Steps for the Thai Labour Movement

The retreat of labour movements globally, as in Thailand, stems partly from the changing meanings of the ‘labour movement’. Workers have to establish movements that are inclusive of all, and cultivate a consciousness that ’we are all workers’. They must think of new ways to ensure that labour movements are able to work effectively and have sufficient power to protect the interests of all their comrades. Some have suggested the formation of ‘National Unions’, a general union to which workers from all sectors of the economy may affiliate. Others have argued for ‘Social Movement Unionism’ which some claim has achieved success in many countries.

We need to recover the vision that the labour movement once had of societies being split into two classes—the classes of capital and labour which possess conflicting interests. All workers belong to the same class and share interests. We should not distinguish workers by different forms of employment, income, or levels of education. Workers have a shared fate by virtue of the classed nature of society. Social movements consist of people or groups of people who share objectives they want to accomplish together. They share an ideology, they fight, work and join together in protesting, rallying, marching, striking or using media. On the basis of these criteria, the labour movement is a social movement.

These perspectives argue that trade unions should not stand apart from communities and society. Rather, they suggest that trade unions pursue social movement unionism. As a basic principle, trade unions should expand their demands to protect the interests of workers who are currently prevented from becoming members as well as other social groups. Trade unions must also join with other society-based movements in their political and social campaigns.

Sakdina Chatrakul Na Ayudhya is an independent labour researcher. He is the founder of the Thai Labour Museum and used to work as an academic advisor of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bangkok. He has also acted as an advisor of some labour organisations and has written many articles and studies on Thai trade union movement and labour history.

This article was first published at Prachatai English on 8 March 2021. It was translated from Thai to English by Dr. Andrew Brown.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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