It was an historic milestone for the whole kingdom when the labour movement succeeded in pushing to establish the Social Security Fund 22 years ago.
Back then, only government officials were entitled to receive health and other welfare benefits while the social security system for the general public was nearly non-existent. Employees in the private sector then felt fortunate to get welfare protection under the Social Security Fund.
Not any longer.
In the past few years, fund members' complaints about the Social Security Fund have become deafening. So have the calls for better benefits as well as for organisational reform of the Social Security Office for more efficiency and transparency.
Their fury is understandable. They have to pay social security fees every month, yet the quality of the health services they receive has become inferior to what the general public gets for free under the universal healthcare programme. Bureaucracy and poor dissemination of information also often prevent members from getting full benefits. Worse, the lack of prompt and honest medical assessments has also prevented workers from getting protection from occupational health hazards, and from receiving proper compensation and rehabilitation.
Indeed, the Social Security Office can do far better than that. With contributions from employees, employers and the government, the massive 900 billion baht fund should be able to provide much better welfare benefits for its 9 million members. Yet, the fund office is trapped in a labyrinth of red tape and inefficiency.
As a state agency under the Labour Ministry, it cannot attract professional fund managers because of poor monetary rewards and promotion prospects. Operated by an army of run-of-the-mill bureaucrats, the agency lacks professional expertise to design and implement a friendly and modern system to answer its members' needs. Political intervention and a lack of transparency in the fund's management have also resulted in power abuse and corruption.
Threatened by an increasing number of members who want to leave the system, the Social Security Office commissioned Thammasat University to propose necessary changes. The university's core advice was no different from what the agency has previously received from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Labour Organisation: Get rid of the bureaucracy. Become an independent organisation.The people-sponsored draft bill by labour rights groups to amend social security laws has taken several steps forward. Apart from making the Social Security Office an independent public organisation in order to increase investment returns and improve welfare benefits, the new bill also aims to make the fund more transparent with representatives elected by the fund members joining the executive board. A fund investment committee must also be set up to avoid financial abuse. Equally important, welfare benefits will have to reach all types of workers, particularly the vulnerable home workers, domestic help, and wage earners. At present, only 9 million out of the 38 million strong labour force are fund members.
This people-sponsored bill is waiting to be tabled for parliamentary debate. This is a significant piece of legislation that should not be delayed or pushed aside for political theatre to continue without much substance. The Social Security Office, however, need not wait to improve welfare benefits and to make the fund management more accountable. In short, shape up, before more and more members decide to ship out.