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LABOUR-THAILAND: Meltdown Leaves Women in Dire Straits

BANGKOK, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - “Please help me find a way to have some money for milk,” pleaded Benjawan Marongthong, mother of two young boys and former worker in a garments factory.

Laid off two years ago and unable to find work at a time when the ranks of the unemployed are swelling as a result of the global economic downturn, Benjawan is almost at the end of her rope.

With her husband the only breadwinner in her family, she has to make the most of the household’s monthly income of 9,000 baht (247 US dollars). “I’d like the government to at least help reduce the social security contribution of 400 baht (11 dollars) we are required to pay every month,” she said. She was referring to the workers’ share of social security.

Speaking at a workshop on the ‘Impact of the Economic Crisis on Women Workers,’ organised by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Women Workers’ Unity Group (WWUG), here Thursday, Benjawan’s plight is not too different from that of a growing number of Thai workers.

While many had to closely watch their expenses before, they are now finding themselves in dire straits as factories, hit by falling overseas orders in Asia and beyond, are closing, cutting work hours or wages. Women are among the most vulnerable groups in this crisis.

“While it is true that women were able to enter the Thai labour sector better than in the past, their bargaining rights and overall job security, coupled with the burdens of being the family breadwinner, have decreased,” Thai labour minister Paitoon Kaewthong conceded at the meeting.

“The majority of women workers are becoming disproportionately susceptible to job cuts and are more likely to be harder hit by raising unemployment,” added Alice Chang, labour director of Union Network International (UNI) Global Union – Asia and the Pacific Region, a network of trade unions totaling two million workers.

Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, Chang said that the number of unemployed Thai women is expected to increase by 14.4 percent this year.

Historically, Thailand has had much lower unemployment rates than neigbours like the Philippines, for instance, but the problems are no less real in this South-east Asian country.

Thailand’s unemployment rate stood at 1.4 percent in 2008, or about 530,000 people. While this was much lower than the 5.7 percent average of other South-east Asian countries, there are worrisome signs for Thailand. For instance, the National Statistics Office said the poverty rate for 2008 reached 8.9 percent, up from 8.5 in 2007 – the first increase since 2000.

The National Economic and Social Development Board, the state planning agency, reported that the country’s unemployment rate is expected to rise to 2.5 percent in 2009. This means that more than 900,000 out of a national labour force of 37.6 million workers could be jobless this year. In 1998, during Thailand’s worst economic crisis, the unemployment rate hit 4.4 percent.

The Thai government has been trying to create economic stimulus packages to help stem the unemployment tide, including a recent decision to give employees who earn less than 15,000 baht (411.78 dollars) a month, a one-time assistance package of 2,000 baht (55 dollars).

Chang noted, however, that “none of these plans have any specific measures for women workers”.

A report released Mar. 5 by the International Labour Organisation echoes the same concerns for women workers during hard times. The unemployment rate in 2008 for women workers in South-east Asia was six percent, up from 5.8 percent in 2007.

In South Asia, the unemployment rates stayed at six percent in both years. For this year, the report ‘Global Employment Trends for Women 2009′ says female unemployment rates in South-east Asia and the Pacific could range from 6.5 to 6.8 percent (eight million women) and from six to 6.8 percent (11 to 13 million people) in South Asia.

Informal workers, who include many women, are also feeling the pinch because they have fewer social safety nets than those in the formal sector. According to the Bangkok-based United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 65 percent of working women in the region are in the informal sector, which means they work as contractual or casual workers and are not entitled to full workers’ benefits.

In a set of proposals presented to the workshop participants, the 46 organisations under the Women Workers’ Unity Group asked the government to set up support funds for laid-off workers, promote job-training skills for workers in small and medium enterprises, provide employment and reduce social security contributions.

Minister Paitoon maintained that the Thai government is closely monitoring the number of workers being let go and taking some measures to help ease the unemployed workers’ burden.

On Jan. 7, the ministry of labour announced the disbursement of 10 billion baht (277 million dollars) to help ease unemployment woes. Paitoon was quoted in newspaper reports as saying that the budget would be spent on “professional training activities for about 500,000 jobless employees” who would also be given an allowance of about 200 baht (five dollars) per day.

“Already, five million workers have indicated interest about this grant,” he said.

But Chang has reservations about workers demanding that ‘’government give us more money”. “Where will this money come from? If income drops and tax from workers drop, how is the government going to get money? What you want is not to get money, but get employed back.”

According to the minister, there are about 100,000 job vacancies at present and the labour ministry is organising another job fair on Mar. 20 and 21 in the Thai capital.

“If there aren’t enough job vacancies, then we might propose that we reduce the number of jobs for migrant workers and give these posts to Thais. Of course, we will give the migrant workers assistance and compensation as well,” he added.

Chang sees the minister’s proposal as problematic. “The minister’s proposal to kick out migrant workers and give the jobs to Thais will not work. You have to remember that there are many Thai migrant workers in other countries as well. If you start kicking migrant workers out, then other countries might also start kicking out Thai workers. Employment rights for foreign workers must be protected as well,” said Chang, a specialist on women’s issues.

For Voravidh Charoenloet of Chiang Mai University, the problem should be addressed with long-term solutions, instead of measures like the 55-dollar assistance. “The 2007 economic crisis won’t end within two years because this is a global issue we’re facing here,” he said.

It is also not enough telling the unemployed to go back to the countryside and find work there. To address the problem, he said, one must look at deeper issues of income gaps and land reform.

Echoing the professor’s sentiments, parliamentarian and human rights activist Rachdaporn Kaewsanit said that Thailand must adopt measures that will support the agricultural industry “if you talk about workers going back to their hometowns for good”.

“We need to redefine poverty – is it the lack of money or the lack of food? We need to have a change in attitude,” she explained.

(*This story was written for the Asia Media Forum coordinated by IPS-Asia Pacific)

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