Making frayed ends meet
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Making frayed ends meet

Workers learn to adapt to tough times under social distancing

Staff of the Asia Hotel in Ratchathewi district have turned the front area of the hotel into a see-through kitchen where they make boxed food to help staff make a living during the economic shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph:
Arnun Chonmahatrakool
Staff of the Asia Hotel in Ratchathewi district have turned the front area of the hotel into a see-through kitchen where they make boxed food to help staff make a living during the economic shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph: Arnun Chonmahatrakool

The number of "patients" suffering economic ills due to the coronavirus pandemic is skyrocketing at a rate even more frightful than the increase in Covid-19 infections.

At 5pm on Saturday, the number of confirmed infections worldwide stood at 1.7 million, but the number of workers running short of money to sustain themselves was, in Thailand alone, estimated at 3 million, based on the number of people not protected by state social security welfare.

It was almost three weeks ago that the government prepared a package of 5,000-baht handouts plus individual emergency loans of 10,000 baht at 0.1% interest a month, with no guarantee required, to especially help those people in need.

Recently the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking predicted up to 7 million Thais will have lost their jobs by June as a result of business closures caused by the virtual economic shutdown.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also admitted the world may be heading for its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Several thousand workers have already borne a heavy brunt over the past month as travel was restricted and people were ordered to stay home under social distancing measures.

Taxi drivers drive alone on almost empty streets; flight attendants are being forced to find new jobs on the ground and even a company executive, who asked for anonymity, told the Bangkok Post that he while he has been able to keep Covid-19 at bay, he is nonetheless financially vulnerable as "I can be laid off any time".

In an interview with hotel staff who were among the first to feel the effects of the shrinking economy, many said they have no idea how long the shutdown will last or what society will look like in the epidemic's aftermath should GDP dive below zero as some predict.

Once working in the prosperous tourism industry, which contributes about 20% of GDP, hotel personnel have begun to seek their own solutions to the economic upset without waiting for relief measures from the government.

Economic ills

Cha-em, a 28-year-old single mum who works for Asia Hotel in Bangkok, says she has been out of work for two weeks.

The hotel, in bustling Ratchathewi district which is popular with foreign tourists, furloughed staff after the number of travellers dramatically dropped due to travel restrictions imposed to contain Covid-19.

The mother of two children -- a 10-year-old boy and two-year-old toddler -- was almost at her wits end when she lost her job. "But I can't lose in this game," Cha-em said.

If an individual succumbs to the virus, one life is gone. But if she succumbs to the reeling economy, it will mean four lives, that of her mother, two sons and herself.

Cha-em is only the breadwinner in the family. She previously earned more than 10,000 baht a month, which enabled her to make ends meet. Almost half her salary went to her mother who takes care of her children upcountry. About 4,000 baht was for rent and 2,000 baht went to pay monthly payments for her motorcycle.


Cha-em has drawn on experience and skills she gained from her jobs at the hotel's restaurant in a desperate effort to continue making a living.

She took on work as a kitchen hand at a Thai dessert shop near her apartment in Hua Lamphong to help make ends meet. "I made only 10 to 20 baht," Cha-em said. "But it's better than nothing. At least, I learned how to do Thai desserts."

After her morning work, she rushes back to her room to prepare khao niao mu ping, or grilled pork with sticky rice, also known as Thai-style barbeque, which she sells in the evening.

Her never-say-die attitude and willingness to adapt herself to take on low-paid jobs gives her the edge she needs to survive.

This was Cha-em's new daily routine for almost two weeks when she received a phone call from a senior colleague at the hotel who asked her to try out a new job.

"We now sell food in front of our hotel," Cha-em said, adding the business, which is also joined by the restaurant's chefs, is helping draw in customers.

It is also a new means to earn money, she said.

"The hotel wants to help its staff, helping them get through this bad time," Thongphun Ruangchomphu, deputy food and beverage manager of the hotel, said.

They cook together and prepare meal boxes for delivery and a drive-through service for motorists.

Complete living

Life in large cities like Bangkok is tough as people will rarely survive if they cannot afford the cost of living, said Ek, a chief at Asia Hotel who has been cooking for 30 years.

Money is crucial to prosper and thrive in the capital, but his life will never be complete without work. That is why he is happy with the reunion of unemployed staff outside the hotel every day.

"I love the sound of a spatula hitting a pan while I fry," Ek said as he was cooking khao op sapparot (pineapple fried rice) which is popular among customers.

"I told myself, Don't get stressed. I try to work out inside my room for 30 minutes a day and spend another 30 minutes to do meditation," he said, while admitting it is difficult to do so while the economy is diving.

According to Ek, when people have no jobs, their minds may be even busier and confused due to economic worries.

He said he understands the new coronavirus disease is not only destroying his livelihood but also that of others as well.

"If everyone understands the situation and helps comply with health authorities' suggestions to fight the disease, then one day everything all be well, that is our hope," he said.

Sompong Kanchanasonthi, 51, an employee affected by the Covid-19, said he also lost his job from the spread of coronavirus.

"I want everything to return to normal as quickly as possible so I can get back to work. My savings are running out,'' he said.

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