Outrage over old-age allowance cut
text size

Outrage over old-age allowance cut

Members of the Four Regions Slum Network, a civic group of low-income communities, protest in front of the finance ministry on Aug 17 against the caretaker government's move to give a monthly allowance only to poor elderly people who meet certain criteria.  (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)
Members of the Four Regions Slum Network, a civic group of low-income communities, protest in front of the finance ministry on Aug 17 against the caretaker government's move to give a monthly allowance only to poor elderly people who meet certain criteria.  (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)

This year's viral video clip on Thai Mothers' Day wasn't about motherly love. It featured a furious mother's outburst, which, surprisingly, gained overwhelming support from viewers across the country.

What made her so mad? The government's decision to stop financial support for all Thais over 60. Under the new regulations, people over 60 will no longer receive the 600-baht monthly allowance automatically. Instead, they must now prove they are poor first. The new rule, nevertheless, will keep giving monthly allowances to elders who have received this financial assistance before.

In the video clip, her frustration poured out: "I'm about to get it next year. But they took it away."

She blamed it on the caretaker government. "Why not wait for the new administration? Why not cut the salaries of #@!$ senators and the military spending on #@!$ submarines, rifles and guns? Why cut support for old people?"

Currently, Thai citizens aged 60 automatically receive a 600-baht monthly allowance, except for government employees. The recipients received a 100-baht increase every 10 years until the allowance reached 1,000 baht. Even though it is a small sum, this universal age-old allowance is an important step towards transitioning from charity-based assistance to rights-based welfare.

Despite rumours, the government consistently denied any plans for cuts. But then, wham! The new rules from the Interior Ministry came out on Aug 11, which came into effect on Mother's Day, Aug 12.

Under the new rules, elderly allowances are now only available to the financially disadvantaged. In the interim, both new and old recipients will continue receiving the allowance under the previous guidelines.

Once the National Committee on the Elderly establishes the poverty criteria, old recipients will also lose their benefits if they do not meet the requirements.

The video clip of this mother's furious outburst quickly went viral because it resonated with the public's anger over losing their rights and dignity and feeling reduced to the status of beggars.

In 2008, Thailand adopted universal social pensions for the elderly because the previous "targeting the poor" approach was inefficient, costly, and left a large number of poor people out in the cold. Ending it would be a regressive step.

Why did the caretaker government make this decision? Was it driven by concerns about future finances, as they claim? Or do they lack an understanding of how crucial universal welfare benefits are in addressing Thailand's glaring inequalities?

When people got upset, the government got defensive.

"Even people like me, who get a big pension of 60,000 baht a month, were getting this allowance. Is that fair?" Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda, who issued the new rules, questioned with irritation. "It's necessary to assess who should or should not receive the money."

Gen Anupong, a former commander-in-chief and junta member, now oversees all local governments in Thailand. Yet he didn't even know the basic fact that government officials were never eligible for the elderly allowances.

At present, Thailand has over 12 million people over 60 and above, constituting about 20% of the whole population. Approximately 11 million of them are receiving the monthly allowance, which cost 71 billion baht in 2022.

This pales in comparison to the 322.8 billion baht spent on pensions for around three million retired government officials that same year. Strangely, no efforts have been made to curtail ballooning government pensions.

The same thing happens with universal healthcare. Since the 2014 military coup, the junta-aligned governments have aimed to limit free healthcare for the poor, citing financial constraints. Yet, they seemed unperturbed by the soaring costs of healthcare for government employees.

For the record, extending universal healthcare coverage to 47 million Thais costs 3,385 baht per person in 2022. In contrast, healthcare expenses for 4.5 million government officials totalled 80 billion baht the same year, amounting to about 17,800 baht per person. And these costs keep escalating.

The glaring disparity in spending between the general public and officialdom fuels the widespread anger over the government's decision to cut the already meagre elderly allowances.

According to the Budget Bureau, the salaries and welfare benefits of government officials — including lifelong pensions — now take up one-third of the national annual budget, with a 3% increase every year in the past decade.

In contrast, the majority of the workforce in Thailand is in the informal sector with no savings and few welfare benefits. As people over 60 will soon make up nearly 30% of the population by 2031, the majority of them will live in poverty.

The government's policy to end universal elderly allowances will worsen their hardship. This decision also cements Thailand's position as the country with the world's worst pension system, according to the Mercer Global Pension Index.

Amid intense public criticism, the Council of State, the government's legal arm, defended the cut, claiming that it aligns with the constitution, which guarantees free welfare solely for the disadvantaged.

This is sheer nonsense.

Supporting the poor is the bare minimum expected of the government; doing more is encouraged, not discouraged. In fact, this new rule from the Interior Ministry contradicts the Elderly Act, which mandates universal and equitable monthly allowances for those over 60.

Can a lesser regulation violate an existing law?

As public outcry continued, Gen Anupong passed the responsibility to the National Committee on the Elderly to determine who should receive the old-age allowances.

When a group of protesters gathered at the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, its leader attempted to ease tensions by pledging to safeguard welfare benefits for the elderly.

However, given the history of false denials from various ministries, these promises hold little credibility.

Thailand is rapidly becoming a super-aged society. The government must take extensive measures to support older workers in maintaining their health and productivity to ensure national progress.

They need access to jobs, credit lines, technology, and training. Investments in better healthcare and increased financial aid are vital to enabling older citizens to contribute to the economy, especially as birthrates decline and the labour force diminishes. Slashing support for vulnerable older people is the last thing the government should do.

Money isn't the problem. Look at the bureaucracy's ballooning pension and healthcare expenses. The real problem is disrespect for rights, equality, and human dignity.

In short, officialdom, as a privileged class, doesn't have ordinary people in their sights.

Yet, they cannot evade the law.

The Interior Ministry's directive to local governments to restrict old-age allowances solely to the poor is unlawful, as it contradicts the Elderly Act. This directive must be revoked.

Since the Elderly Act falls under the jurisdiction of the Social Development and Human Security Ministry and the National Committee, they should not comply with the Interior Ministry's directive. Doing otherwise would be equivalent to allowing someone to slap them in the face.

It doesn't take much to put things right. Watch the viral video from Mother's Day and heed her words. Repeal the new regulation. Be transparent. Let the new administration handle this issue. Reduce wasteful government expenses and benefits. Safeguard welfare for all.

Don't forget! The best guidance often comes from mothers.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

Do you like the content of this article?