Myanmar, Lao and Cambodian workers — legal or illegal — we need them back. Their fears are understandable, having come from countries that were torn apart by civil wars, countries that have brutal histories of military regimes.
But we need to bring them back and reassure them of their safety. What’s more, we need to find a way to make them all legal. This isn’t just because of the oncoming Asean Economic Community (AEC), but in practical terms, we need their labour.
Having done the rounds with various foreign investors the past week, the call is being made in unison. Thailand needs to stimulate its economy. Well, obviously.
Foreign investors congratulate Thailand’s resilience (and luck) that through a decade of upheavals (two military coups, three uprisings and occupations, and a whole of lot of craziness) the economy still pushes on, battered and bruised though it may be. But they are worried that things might blow up if the general doesn’t have control. This has nothing to do with democracy, heaven forbid, or no one would invest in China. Foreign investors are not hypocrites. They are practical.
The following advice should therefore be viewed as the cold economic truth, nothing to do with bleeding-heart democratic ideals. We shall not presume it reflects the belief of all investors.
In terms of developing economies, many foreign investors prefer centre-right governments, which offer good prospects for investment. Anything to the left spells socialism at best, or communism at worst. This is not so good for investment. Even communist China is more right-wing capitalist in its behaviour nowadays.
So investors hope the general can get things under control, but also caution that the country must eventually return to democratic elections. One year, give or take, is an agreeable goal. Centre-right democracy, they say, best for investment. Subsidies are fine and at times necessary; investors understand this. But keep subsidies in check because they lead to abuse.
Whether it’s cooking gas or fuel energy subsidies, housewives and drivers risk being spoiled and failing to understand real value. They consume more than necessary.
Worst of all, subsidies lead to illegal smuggling, because locals realise they can make money selling subsidised goods across borders. The rampant cross-border rice smuggling that resulted from the rice-pledging scheme is one example. With the advent of AEC, smuggling will be even easier.
So don’t go crazy with subsidies. Foreign investors are good capitalists; they want real work for real value and real money.
The three basic factors to stimulate the economy are these. Cultivate more land. Put more people to work. Put more machinery to work. But in Thailand, we’ve raped our lands 10 times over. There’s not much left, if any, to cultivate. So forget it.
We can hardly put more people to work, because our unemployment rate is already quite low. But still we need labourers and factory workers.
Face it — a lot of us Thais are happy driving motorcycle taxis or having our little clothing stalls at the various flea markets. We enjoy the freedom of being our own bosses. This is fine. Personal choice. But we are not exactly driving the economy.
Therefore, we need the Myanmar, Lao and Cambodian workers. They are the workers that help drive the Thai economy. But of course, we can’t have them illegally. This leads to abuses by employers.
Legislate to legalise these workers. Monitor their welfare.
Last, the machines aren’t working because the people aren’t working them. They are in exodus. Not to mention, the owners of the machines still aren’t sure which way Thailand will head, toward stability or civil war? Thailand isn’t known for producing machines. We are a labour-intensive economy.
So it’s up to the general to get things under control and build confidence.
Keen foreign investors have their eyes and ears to the ground. They know what they want. Politically, they want us to the right of centre, with democracy in due course. They value control and stability. Economically, they want us to invest in infrastructure to improve productivity, logistics and transport.
And here are two more important factors. Keep corruption to a minimum and prioritise education reform.
That’s the political and economic truth, even if some find it emotionally distressing.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka at email@example.com.