Save informal workers, save economy
Unstable income and health risks are no strangers to highway stall vendors, but this year's pandemic underscores the policy urgency to provide them and other 38 million informal workers with better life and work security.
Highway stall vendors always look forward to long holidays, because they bring more tourists on the roads and more income amid the economic slowdown during the past decade. But this year's Songkran festival sadly passed them by as the nationwide lockdown brought their already shaky businesses to a standstill.
How to help them cope?
How to help low-income informal workers who cannot follow the "work-from-home" policy?
Highway stall vendors are part of Thailand's informal workers who form the largest group in the workforce. Although they are an important driving force in the country's economy, they have a low quality of life and are ridden with financial and health problems.
While the government must ensure that informal workers receive comprehensive state assistance and easy access during the pandemic, it is equally important to address different occupations' varying needs with long-term cures.
Apart from extensive welfare safety nets for all informal workers, highway stall vendors urgently need special assistance to equip them with skills in small business management. The government also should provide proactive health outreach services to help them cope with health problems from their line of work.
Their business and health needs were seen clearly in a recent survey on highway stall vendors in the Northeast by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).
"I want to do something else, but I don't know what I could do," said one honey vendor, frustrated about bad business and her limited resources.
She is not alone. Nearly half of highway stall vendors express the same discontent, saying they can barely make ends meet although they have been in the business for more than five years.
Like in other parts of the country, highway stalls in the Northeast are family businesses. Some stalls sell farm produce such as fruits, corn and local delicacies such as dried fish and cow placenta. Others sell non-farm products including windshield wiper blades, chopping blocks and cotton candy, to name just a few.
Apart from unceasing financial struggles, the vendors face similar dangers and health problems from work and environmental hazards. Selling goods along busy highways poses a high risk of being accidentally hit by cars. Extreme heat and road dust also seriously affect their health.
It is not surprising that many highway stall vendors suffer respiratory problems from air pollution and body aches from being confined in their stalls. Ulcers are another common health problem. The vendors must have early breakfasts before leaving home very early to set up shop. They often have to go without meals all day until dinner at night after getting home because there are no food shops near their stalls.
They work about 10 hours a day on average, or about 70 hours per week, which far exceed the legal standards under the labour law.
Despite the long hours, the low returns explain their common frustration.
According to our survey, each vendor earns an average of 1,774 baht a day before deducting costs. When asked about average daily cost, they said they did not have the figures. Nor did they think the earnings were worth their 10 hours of work. It is obvious that their income is not enough as many need to do other jobs in tandem to earn extra cash.
Such low earnings make them feel they cannot afford to take a day off to see a doctor when they feel sick. A day away means losing the income for that day. Subsequently, they buy medicines over the counter without realising the health danger from side effects or misuse. Muscle pain medications are very popular among vendors, which can cause and aggravate ulcers if used wrongly, as is often the case.
Most vendors only take one day off each week at the most. "Where can we get money if we stop working?" they ask wearily.
It is clear. Given informal workers' vulnerability to poverty and illness from life and income insecurity, the government must provide them with comprehensive and accessible welfare services.
Highway stall vendors, in particular, need special assistance to overcome business limitations and health issues.
Most of them learn their trade from their families and have little formal education. Although rich with experience about their goods, they commonly lack basic accounting skills, treating their daily sales as net income without deducting investment costs and their labour.
Besides, they use what they receive from daily sales for family expenses, mixing personal with business money. They do not know about daily business costs, profits or losses. They spend more when they earn more and borrow money when they are short of cash. Not knowing where the money is coming and going, they are caught in a cycle of debt. Under such financial constraints, they do not dare take risks with new investments.
Clearly, they need to have basic accounting training skills to operate more professionally. Since most stall owners are parents of advancing age with little formal education, younger family members who are more tech-savvy should be recruited for small business management training. The government might consider setting some preconditions for them to receive state assistance. For example, requiring stall operators to send their young family members to attend accounting training for small businesses. Knowing net costs and profits will help them manage their businesses sustainably.
On health, the vendors cannot use their universal healthcare benefits because the services are not available outside office hours. Losing one day of business to see a doctor means losing one day of income. But going to the hospital means they do not have the opportunity to get proper information about medicine uses, which brings long-term health problems.
Reducing health vulnerability among informal workers requires systematic government preventive healthcare promotion to change their behaviour. Highway stall vendors suffer similar illnesses showing that they have similar unhealthy habits such as not having regular meals and not using medicines properly. Apart from preventive care, the government may consider the stricter use of painkillers.
With the country's all-out effort to keep the citizenry safe, the pandemic will soon go away. This might be not the case with the problems plaguing the highway stall vendors and the 38-million-strong informal work force.
Here's a sad fact: Short of the political will to save the largest number of workers in the country, the country's economy will not be safe either. By the time the country realises the significance of the informal economy, it might be too late.
Boondhariga Chonpitakwong is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute. Worawan Chandoevwit, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Economics, Khon Kaen University, and an adviser for the Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.