Ripe time to push for pension reforms

Ripe time to push for pension reforms

As the government has no commitment to it, a national pension bill has been put on hold for too long. (Bangkok Post photo)
As the government has no commitment to it, a national pension bill has been put on hold for too long. (Bangkok Post photo)

A worker on a daily wage can hardly make ends meet, so what kind of a life can he or she expect to have after retiring? Not a very good one, I'm afraid.

There is a lot of data to support this sad fact. According to the National Statistics Office, while incomes have increased by about 26% in the past 10 years, household expenses have gone up by 31%. Debts, meanwhile, rose 25% in the same period.

These figures show that many people, especially breadwinners, can hardly save money for a decent retirement. Some may need to work until they die, or depend on their children. But under such a system, their children will also have the same problem.

There is no incentive for senior citizens to take risks -- such as, starting a business -- since failure could mean hunger for the whole family. This cycle goes on and on for generations.

Needless to say, we need a better safety net that includes an adequate pension for every elderly person, so they can lead a quality life and not become a burden on their children.

Last week, representatives of the Network of People's Pension Fund brought up the issue.

They gathered in front of Government House to demand a new pension scheme that will provide every senior citizen a monthly amount of 3,000 baht, which is the country's poverty line.

Currently, all citizens between the ages of 60-69 are entitled to a 600-baht a month allowance, while those over 70 are eligible for a progressive allowance of between 700-1,000 baht.

These amounts are not enough even to cover basic needs.

The network also called on the government to pay attention to the people's version of the national pension bill -- which was drafted by multiple stakeholders which include workers, senior citizens and civil society groups -- and which has garnered more than 13,000 signatures.

Under the constitution, citizens are able to submit bills to the parliament. But the prime minister must certify those bills before delivering them to the lower house.

The national pension bill was sent to PM Prayut Chan-o-cha through his office five months ago, but he has yet to respond. Many people doubt if the prime minister would ever respond, as the issue does not appear to be a priority. As a result, the bill won't go anywhere as the prime minister is sitting on it, so to speak.

Under the current pension system, only those working in the state service before the creation of the government pension fund or kor bor khor -- Gen Prayut among them -- are granted a monthly pension and other benefits like free medical treatment.

Formal workers who contribute to the Social Security Fund for a minimum of 15 years are entitled to a monthly pension. But the amount they will get won't be enough to cover the increasing cost of living in the long run.

Informal workers, which account for 55% of the labour force, also do not qualify for benefits under the pension system. As such, their quality of life after retirement is primarily determined by the type of jobs they had and their family's wealth.

A high quality of life does not mean having just enough money to pay for basic needs. It means having the ability to be independent, contribute to society and maintain intellectual wellness in old age. Seniors should have the ability to live their life, to travel and purchase good literature without becoming a burden to their children.

I don't see this concept reflected in the pension system, except perhaps for civil servants. Here is the ugly truth: Thailand is not a land of opportunity for all. It's a land of inequality, where the disadvantaged experience hardship even in their working age. After retirement, their lives can be even more difficult.

The United Nations' World Happiness Report shows the happiest countries in the world, such as Scandinavian countries, have a well-organised welfare system which provides a safety net from birth to death for all citizens.

Such a system encourages senior citizens to take risks and remain productive, allowing them to give back to the economy.

For such a system, a high degree of trust is needed between the people and their governments, high levels of transparency and effective tax collection. These elements are missing in Thailand, which has the added problem of an absence of political will to improve social welfare.

During last year's general election, parties touted their social welfare agendas as they tried to impress voters. The Palang Pracharath Party -- now a core coalition party -- promised to provide a universal basic income to mothers until their children reach the ages of six and increase the elderly allowance up to 1,000 baht.

But none of these have materialised so far. Those promises turned out to be empty rhetoric aimed at scoring political points.

Worse still, some government figures have even lost their cool when asked about social welfare, with the typical response being, "Where will the money come from?"

They seem to have forgotten their promises.

As we know, a large part of the state budget is going to dubious projects, such as arms purchases. While the government is forking out 36 billion baht for submarines, it claims to have no money for a scheme which ensures better welfare for the elderly.

Thais deserve better. Pension reforms should no longer be put on hold. Those who have contributed to society's development must be taken care of, so their children can have their own savings for themselves. That will be only be possible if we have the will and push the policymakers to realise it.

Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.


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