Gig workers need unions to secure living
text size

Gig workers need unions to secure living

On May Day last week, hundreds of demonstrators marched from Ratchaprasong intersection to the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre (BACC) to push for improvements to labour rights. People from all walks of life took part in the rally, held by the Workers' Union. Among them were delivery riders with their precarious employment status.

In recent years, the growth of online commerce has increased the demand for delivery riders. According to a survey by the Bangkok-based data centre Rocket Media Lab among 1,136 food delivery riders across the country last year, most delivery riders are male aged between 23-30.

While some possess bachelor degrees, over half graduated from high school, the survey found. It also that some 60% work full-time, of whom 37.13% work over eight hours a day.

The flexibility in terms of time commitment may make it seem like these riders are their own bosses. Whether they are considered "partners" or independent freelance workers, when it comes to job security, they ride at their own risk because they are not employees.

These workers need a safety net, in the form of daily minimum wage reforms, health insurance and compensation for work-related accidents -- a pressing issue to consider as Rocket's poll showed 94% of the delivery riders it surveyed have had an accident at work.

When it comes to living with uncertainties, these riders are not alone.

Rural stringers scouting for news are paid on a per-assignment basis. Artists pursue their craft in their off-hours, working around their day job which they need to stay afloat. Many lecturers are now working under uncertain conditions because their tenure is dependent on unrealistic requirements, such as publishing works in world-class publications and acquiring more academic degrees.

The emergence of the precariat -- people whose employment and income are insecure -- is a global phenomenon. Guy Standing, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, discussed a new global class structure in his 2014 article in Contexts. It comprised these very individuals, who are at the mercy of flexible labour contracts, wages without other benefits, and other lost rights.

The advent of the gig economy offers unprecedented freedom to riders. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri explain in Empire that the transition from an industrial to information economy decentralises production. Workers can perform tasks from remote locations, but it comes at a price because capital can bypass a given local population to others in the global network.

In my view, allowing workers living under precarious conditions to form unions will provide them with some relief, by leveraging their voices to better negotiate for improved welfare. Living in uncertainty undermines their political capital, their ability to meaningfully engage in wider society or improve their conditions.

Some of them have already joined hands to get their voices heard.

Delivery riders, for instance, have founded the Free Rider Union. In recent years, they have staged strikes over pay cuts and other issues. Early this year, over 100 riders in Songkhla's Hat Yai rallied to call for higher wages after fuel prices soared. The Workers' Union is also planning a nationwide strike.

It is not easy, though, because the labour movement also runs counter to the authoritarian regime.

The cabinet recently in principle approved the Bill on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organisations. If passed into law, it will have a sweeping effect on the ability of workers to assemble. It would require non-profit groups to disclose their sources of funding and ban activities deemed a threat to national security.

The Move Forward Party (MFP) is pushing for a bill to help workers set up their unions, but it remains to be seen whether it will be shot down like the Marriage Equality Bill or whether the dissolution of parliament will reset its chances to zero.

Suthep Ou-oun, a party-list MP for the MFP, said the bill will cover a wide range of workers, including riders and lecturers. Currently, the law allows only formal workers to establish unions -- even so, very few have unionised.

The nature of jobs will constantly evolve, but the provision of universal welfare can cushion the impact of insecurity.

Assoc Prof Sustarum Thammaboosadee, a lecturer of international relations at Thammasat University, said it will take half of the nation's annual budget to transform it into a welfare state. Indeed, authorities have aspired to provide universal welfare since it was encapsulated in Pridi Banomyong's economic and social plan back in 1932.

Unfortunately, it did not come into fruition.

Thana Boonlert

Bangkok Post columnist

Thana Boonlert is a writer for the Life section and a Bangkok Post columnist.

Do you like the content of this article?