The misery of the majority

We have been hearing a lot of complaints about the 300-baht minimum wage from business operators. What about listening to our maids, food vendors, taxi drivers, and people who are not on company payrolls for a change?

Start with Nuchnapa Bamrungna, who works at home in Khon Kaen.

"No, we haven't received the 300-baht daily minimum wage like salaried workers," she said. "We're paid piece-rate, by the number of fishing nets we make. I work more than 10 hours a day and get less than 100 baht. No one is thinking about us."

Sangwan Saengkaew, a domestic worker, is similarly disheartened.

Last year, the Labour Ministry issued a ministerial regulation to give domestic workers one day off each week, overtime pay, 13 days of annual leave, and paid sick leave. Yet, her reality remains unchanged.

"What can you do when your bosses are unwilling?" she asked. "So forget about the minimum wage."

Ms Sangwan and Ms Nuchnapa were among some 50 members of the Informal Workers Network who recently met to compare notes and discuss how to push for decent work conditions.

They are certainly not against the minimum wage. The problem is that they are not covered by the scheme. They are also unhappy that, unlike salaried workers, they are neither protected by labour laws, nor receive welfare benefits.

According to the National Statistics Office, only 14.7 million people work in the formal sector _ salaried people with legal labour benefits and protection. The majority, 24.6 million, are informal workers without official contract arrangements, regular incomes or labour rights. And this number is on the rise as employers prefer to outsource their work to cut costs on welfare and work safety.

"The informal sector contributes 46% of gross domestic product, yet they have to put up with long work hours, low and irregular pay, work hazards, and no welfare and labour protection, including no minimum wage," said Suntaree H Saeng-ging from the Foundation for Labour and Employment Promotion.

Despite the uphill task in getting organised, given informal workers' scattered workplaces and different types of jobs, a nationwide network of home workers successfully pushed for the Home Workers Protection Act in 2010.

"Two years have passed, but the law is still not enforced," Sakorn Kruawan, a leather product home worker from Phayao, complained. "We had high hopes then that this bill would bring us the minimum wage, work safety and welfare benefits. But we have been let down."

Meanwhile, home workers have virtually no chance to become self-employed without state support for loans and market access.

For taxi driver Boonma Saengpracha, the question is whether his work makes him an employee, a sub-contractor of the taxi garage owner, or a freelance worker. Each category carries different labour benefits.

In some countries, if a person works for only one employer who controls the manner of his/her work for a certain period of time _ say over 40 hours a month in the previous three months _ then he/she is considered a formal worker entitled to legal welfare benefits. But this is not yet the case in Thailand.

When a person's life is under constant economic uncertainty, social security becomes an important factor keeping their heads above water. After years of campaigns, the government finally allowed informal workers to join social security programmes. But the fee-paying system is costly and difficult, thus forcing many to drop out.

"Being unable to make ends meet, we end up in debt to loan sharks and have to do many jobs at the same time to survive each day," Kaew Klaewkla, from Bangkok, said.

But at least they have freedom. Not Banjong Wilaisri, a domestic worker.

Ms Banjong's bitterness cuts deeper as it results from more than low pay, long work hours, lack of rest and restricted freedom of movement.

"When I was pregnant, I wasn't even allowed to stop working. If I did, then my pay was cut," she said.

"[My employers] treat their dogs better than they do me. When the dogs are sick, they take them to the clinic and pay for their medicine. When I'm sick, I have to be on my own because they don't care. Why is that?"

If you think that is awful, the situation facing undocumented migrant workers is far worse.

Is it the poor quality of our laws, or the poverty of our hearts? Perhaps Ms Banjong already knows the answer.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Assistant Editor