Working dream becomes a nightmare
Surin Pimpa and Sa-nguan Khunsong, now in their 60s, have spent most of their lives on a production line at Capital Rayon, a textile company based in Nakhon Pathom. Together, with fellow workers, they have produced countless socks for the company.
Their contribution helped make a small family business into a large-scale factory. The business's success enabled the factory owners to send their children to study abroad and subsequently take over the factory.
Over the years, the textile industry has declined, and it was the coronavirus outbreak that triggered the final curtain for Capital Rayon and all its 180 workers -- including Surin and Sa-nguan.
"The owners are selling off old machines. I'm like those machines. In the past, we, workers, were praised for helping to move the country forward. But today, we are no longer wanted by the country," said Surin, or Auntie Rin, a native of Ratchaburi.
She was drawing on a metaphor about her fate and the worn-out machines. Born into a farmer's family, she reached Prathom 4 (fourth grade) then started as a worker at the factory when she was 17. Now she is 63.
"Back then, we worked 12 hour shifts and earned around 12 baht a day, without any benefits or even drinking water. We should have been paid extra when we worked overtime," Auntie Rin said, recalling the tipping point where she started to call for fair pay and joined a labour movement.
Sa-nguan, or Auntie Nguan, 68, is also from farming stock. Her family's land in Nakhon Pathom had been appropriated for a state project, forcing her to seek work in a factory. She joined Capital Rayon in 1974 and has been there ever since.
In 1981, both joined other Capital Rayon workers in going on strike to call for better welfare benefits from the factory owners.
Their efforts to achieve change, however, were not successful because they lacked knowledge about labour laws which required workers to submit their demands before taking strike action. Their failure became a turning point.
The workers were forced to start learning about labour laws from other unions. Capital Rayon Labour Union was later established, with Auntie Nguan among the members of the first committee.
"At first, most workers didn't understand what a labour union was or what benefits a member could receive. We'd try to explain why a gathering was so important such as risking losing industrial battles through intimidation. Also they needed to be told that a membership fee would cover the expenses of union activities," said Auntie Rin, who served as one of the second committee members.
She said workers at the time were very active in their bid for fair play, and keen to join unions. At one point, more than 600 workers out of 800 at the factory had joined the union.
The labour movement at her factory and in the area became even stronger as other unions came together from factories in Om Noi and Om Yai in Nakhon Pathom, as well as those from state enterprises and the private sector.
They were then known as the Om Noi-Om Yai Labour Union headed by legendary labour leader Wilawan Sae Tia.
Such a force eventually became the main support behind the student uprising in the 1970s, fighting against the dictatorship at the time. Ms Wilaiwan is retired and now lives with her family upcountry.
Workers had no idea about the labour movement when student activists asked them to join the protests at Sanam Luang in 1976.
But participating in social actions helped them gather new information and knowledge, as well as broaden their perspectives. They also learned that they needed to fight for workers' rights.
"We fought for a minimum wage because we knew it would never come without a fight," said Auntie Rin, learning the hard way that employers in Thailand, though a minority in number, always have a bigger say than the workers.
"I've been working for over 40 years but still earn the daily minimum wage of 331 baht," she said. It's a painful fact that the skills and the experience of Thai workers have never been taken into account, reflecting the failure of a "fair payment system".
The Om Noi-Om Yai Labour Union played an outstanding role in fighting to pave the way for a social security law. In 1990, Auntie Rin and Auntie Nguan were representatives of the movement that pressured the Chatchai Choonhavan government to lay the foundations for the law.
Established in 1990, the fund set up under the Social Security Act was meant to take care of workers during their lifetime. Both women have been members from the start.
From a start-up of a billion baht, it has grown into a 2.2 trillion baht fund, making it the country's largest, with the biggest contribution coming from the workers' monthly payments.
Despite paying contributions all their working lives, access to the fund is still limited and their say in fund management "is not satisfactory".
Workers are categorised as "those in need of help from the system" while state officials unfairly take the lead in the management, with enjoying the luxury resulting from their positions.
Worse, a large amount of money has reportedly been spent on hiring consultant companies to work on its management system. This raised the question: Who really benefits from the system?
"We're proud to fight for fairness for our brothers and sisters," said Auntie Nguan, talking about her leading role in the union.
Although she and the Capital Rayon Union are only "small people", they are part of a force that laid the foundations for the labour movement.
It's been more than two months since Capital Rayon has failed to meet payment deadlines, forcing its workers to struggle.
There were signs the factory was facing financial trouble with the employers and workers often in conflict. Irregular monthly payments suddenly stopped with the employers claiming to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The problems became more serious when the employer failed to make contributions to the Social Security Fund (SSF) even though they deducted sums from workers' pay cheques.
Their benefits were disrupted. Some migrant workers have had their contributions deducted from their salaries, but they couldn't claim any assistance or make medical claims.
"They told us to file a lawsuit if we wanted anything back," said Auntie Nguan.
Auntie Rin, as leader of Capital Rayon labour union, opted for street protests on May 13.
"It's sad that we've helped them get rich and expand the factory. But today we're being abandoned," lamented Auntie Nguan.
But Auntie Rin looked at it from a different perspective. "If you ask me it's worth it that I spent most of my life at the factory -- but, financially, it's not. But I'm glad that I've had an opportunity to fight for fairness and the rights of workers in other factories. I've been listening to their problems and seeking solutions even though we we've hardly seen fairness at our factory."
Thanks to the protests, the employers have agreed to make partial payments to the disgruntled workers in accordance with SSF regulations. But they still have to fight for a retirement fund and other contributed money.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a "new normal" for Thai society.
Employers like Capital Rayon also take advantage of the "new normal" by abandoning workers, leaving them in the hands of the Social Security Office.
Under such circumstances, Auntie Rin, Auntie Nguan and other workers have no choice but to continue the "old normal", fighting tooth and nail for labour justice.
Paskorn Jumlongrach is the founder of www.transbordernews.in.th.
Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
Paskorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th