At first glance, the workers from Triumph apparel wear looked upbeat as they energetically took turns speaking from a truck manoeuvred before recent protests at Government House and the German embassy in Bangkok. But behind the cheer remained bitterness and anger. The company is German-owned.
The workers said they were demonstrating for their right to unionise, in accordance with the B.E. 2550 (2007) constitution Article 64, which recognises people's right to form gatherings or organisations to protect their interests.
''We fight for the right to unionise,'' said a number of protesters.
I did a random survey of the workers, some of whom were dressed peculiarly to attract attention to their cause _ for example, wearing their underwear outside their uniforms _ to see if they understood the purposes of the strike which has been underway since July 30. From their responses, it was evident that all of them believe in the value of free and independent unions.
"The labour union means so much to us,'' said May (a pseudonym), from Surin province, who has been working with the company for 13 years. "Without the union we would not be able to enjoy good working conditions,'' she added.
All the workers interviewed heaped praise upon their union.
"When I first came to work I earned about 120 baht a day,'' Noi said. Presently, she and other workers earn 333 baht a day, plus allowances, thanks to the struggles of the union.
Noi left a remote village in Nakhon Ratchasima province to work for the company 16 years ago. Even with the pay increases won by the union, she is unable to send much money back home, as she had hoped. "I have too many burdens,'' she said, elaborating on the daily expenses and housing cost she shoulders.
When asked if she is afraid of being dismissed for protesting, she said: "When we decided to protest, we knew there would be a risk. I don't have enough savings to sustain myself for long. But we must fight,'' she said with determination.
Noi said they were not starting the protest from square one. "We have some experience in this, our union has been around since 1980.''
The current strike started when the workers learned that their union leader Jitra Kotchadej had been dismissed by the company. A few weeks ago, the employer and officials from the Labour Ministry agreed to meet with workers' representatives to negotiate the demands to reinstate her. The workers also wanted guarantees that those who joined the protest would not be punished, and demanded that a company executive be removed for failing to establish good relationships with the workers, and causing rifts among them.
The first meeting on August 9 was scheduled for 10am.; it was postponed several times until 4pm. There was no progress that day, and a new meeting was scheduled for August 13, when the employer again refused to meet any of the workers' requests.
For the past month, more than 3,000 Triumph workers have taken turns protesting in front of the factory in Samut Prakan province, and last Monday (August 18) they came to Bangkok to demand that the Ministry of Labour look into their problems. On Tuesday they moved their protest to the German embassy.
Back in Samut Prakan at the ongoing protest at the factory, striking worker Ple said: "It's not fun staying here. We must endure many difficulties - no water, no electricity, no toilet." She added that combining themselves into a union is the only weapon that poor workers have.
"We are hurting. We don't want to be dismissed, but the company has us cornered. We have no choice but to carry on and strengthen our union," said Kob from Kampaeng Phet province.
Fortunately, after the workers protested at a junction in Samut Prakarn on August 10, the governor of the province decided to provide them with a mobile toilet and water, and also agreed to provide them electricity free of charge.
Many workers believe that the reasons given to dismiss Jitra were just a pretext to destroy their union. The dismissal came after she wore a T-shirt asking the public to reconsider the use of lese majeste laws when she appeared on a TV programme in late April to discuss abortion issues.
The union members insist that it is a private matter involving freedom of expression and has nothing to do with the operations of the plant.
The company filed charges against Jitra at the Labour Court alleging that she damaged the company's reputation. Company managing director Kenneth Marshall said Jitra's action had hurt the company's image, insisting that the labour union is not the company's target.
However, Jitra says she has never been given a chance to defend herself in court.
"I never received any court summons," she said, adding that a summons may have been sent to a rental house she moved out of long ago.
Jitra said it was obvious that the company wanted to persecute her and the union, because she went to work every day and was never informed of the summons. The striking workers have demands the unconditional reinstatement of Jitra and guarantees that there would be no reprisals against them. Until late Wednesday, the company continued to insist on the dismissal. Then, in a meeting with the union, the company gave a verbal agreement that she would be reinstated, but would have to be transferred to another company branch.
In recent days workers have reported violence against them. Another round of negotiations was initiated on Friday.
Unequal Power Relation
The struggle of the Triumph workers' union is not an isolated case. According to the Ministry of Labour, from October 2006 to September 2007, 154 labour unions were dissolved, while 106 were registered. From October 2007 to July 2008, 70 more union licenses were revoked and 71 unions were newly listed. This shows a net loss of unions for the period. Moreover, according to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), almost half of the 351 petitions it received from 2001 up to June 2008 concerned labour unions.
NHR Commissioner Sunee Chaiyaros has been investigating labour rights issues for six years. She noted that in many instances these cases reveal an unequal power relation between workers, their employers and government officials.
"There are many attempts by employers and officials to hamper the workers' rights to association and negotiation," said Sunee, adding that it is not uncommon for government officials to side with employers.
The NHRC has a mandate to investigate all petitions it receives, as stated in the 1999 National Human Rights Act. A review of the petitions reflects the lengths that employers will go to eliminate unions.
For example, NHRC report number 229/2550 (2007) details a case in which an export company agreed, at the behest of the NHRC, to reinstate 118 workers who had been dismissed for striking, in accordance with Article 35 of the Work Relation Act 2518 (1975).
The NHRC found that the employers did not abide by the language of the act, which states that workers must be reinstated without any conditions imposed on them.
The investigation revealed that the company had split the 118 workers, all union members, into two groups. 100 were forced to sit in a small room and attend training sessions. The company said these were arranged to rehabilitate and readjust the workers so that they could re-enter the workplace.
The workers testified that some of these training sessions were quite bizarre. In one, a person claiming to be a spirit medium made comments criticising the character of the workers. In another session an armed man led them through a series of exercises, telling them he was an award-winning marksman.
These workers know the value of labour unions and are aware that pains must be taken to maintain their function.
Workers testified that they felt dehumanised by the sessions, in which they were made to stay in the room with only a fan for long periods and ask permission to leave when nature called.
Officials from the Ministry of Labour also witnessed the incidents. Initially, they made no effort to intervene in the strange training activities, but later some of them asked the company to stop dehumanising its workers.
Sunee said that the purpose of the "training" was to pressure workers past their point of tolerance so that they would quit of their own accord.
The remaining 18 reinstated workers were core members of the union. Perhaps because they might refuse to cooperate in the sessions, they were merely required to wait around without any work assigned, and report to the office at 9am, 1pm and 15.30pm every day.
NHRC report number 51/2549 (2006) describes a case in which the head of the union at a commodity transport business was accused of causing an accident, damaging company property through carelessness, and then dismissed. In order to get his job back he was asked to dissolve the union, which he did. He was then allowed to go back to work, but as in the above case he was not given any work to do, only required to report to the office several times a day.
Besides the NHRC, the union leader had petitioned other concerned agencies. The Protection Department at the Ministry of Labour ruled that in fact he had never damaged any company property and had never intentionally missed any work. The department ordered the company to compensate the labour leader for lost wages.
The NHRC found that the leader had exercised his rights under the constitution in good will, but was dismissed solely because of his activities as a union representative and involvement in negotiations on working conditions at the company. The NHRC recommended that the company reinstate the union leader with full compensation to his former position.
In other cases union leaders have been accused of stealing company property valued at small amounts - 200 baht in one instance and 20 to 40 baht in another.
NHRC report number 11/2547 (2004) tells of a union leader in such a case who was cleared of theft in the Labour Court (verdict No. 5670-5671/ 2545 (2003)). The company has since appealed the decision. At the very same company, other union members have been made to abandon their membership in order to keep their jobs.
Among many cases that the NHRC has looked into was one in which it was alleged that management was involved in consultations with the company lawyer on how to go about dissolving the labour union. The NHRC obtained a document that clearly stated this intention. The company later agreed to compensate the labour union leader, who had been dismissed. Full findings can be viewed on NHRC report number 16/2546 (2003).
This labour union leader is fortunate that the document was accidentally submitted to the NHRC by the company's HR department.
Sunee expressed her concerns about the variety of methods which employers develop to force union members and leaders to stop their activities. She raised the example of labour report number 312/ 2551 (2008), where a company used the simple technique of transferring union leaders to another factory in which working conditions were more difficult.
A company might follow some recommendations from her office, said Sunee, but that doesn't guarantee major long-term improvements in working conditions.
She urged the government to support international labour agreements which clearly grant protections to labour and affirm the right to unionise. "It would be a big help if the government ratifies the International Labour Convention, articles 87 and 98 of which concern the right to association.
"Moreover, the government should be leading the effort to develop a national plan to educate people in general to understand human rights and labour rights under various domestic laws and international conventions," she said, adding it was crucial to enforce the Labour Protection and Work Relations Act and apply Thai working standard 8001 - a set of ethical measures in trade and investment - in the workplace.
She also called on both the government and private firms to educate staff in understanding work relations and respecting workers' rights in negotiations.
"This will improve working conditions and output efficiency, and bring a fair share of benefits to both workers and investors," she added.
Academics and lawyers interviewed remarked that in many cases workers encounter difficulties in Labour Court proceedings. Accessing justice for workers is complicated and costly. Employers are adept at getting the upper hand in negotiations with workers who have to struggle day in and day out to meet lawyers' fees.
Labour expert Dr Lae Dilokvidhayarat said there is a need to reform the labour conflict resolution.
"If we had strong unions, as in many other countries, I believe that employers wouldn't dismiss workers on the basis of a court verdict alone," he said. He noted that before a union leader is dismissed in Vietnam, an employer must get permission from the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour.
"The problem is, Thai labour organisations lack negotiating power and sometimes place too much hope on government agencies," Lae remarked.
From his experience, court procedures are barriers for the poor because of the cost and time involved. "The best way is to get organised and strengthen the power of unions. This will lead to more negotiation power to convince all concerned government officials and employers to heal their troubles," he said.
Note: This is the third in a series on labour issues in Thailand.