11 July 2024

Morally, it’s undisputed. Economically, it’s questionable. Politically, it’s a no-no. All of them, of course, come with a big “Unless”. That’s how Thailand should proceed with the Pheu Thai Party’s vision on what must be the minimum amounts unskilled Thai workers should be paid in a day.

The party’s promise of 600 baht a day is great. Unless it ruins the economy or simply enables labourers to pay more for telecom services, or houses, or medicine, that is. It’s about time the contribution of unskilled labour was fully acknowledged, but the high minimum wage idea requires a revamp of national thinking, affecting practically all other national policies.

Simply put, it’s a good moral initiative as long as the initiator is able to create a suitable environment. Otherwise, what is “good” morally could turn into a great destroyer. Illegal and cheaper foreign workers would flood in. Labour abuses would intensify. Entrepreneurs would save their hides and their customers will end up paying the price.

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It’s questionable economically unless a new value is drilled into the owners of businesses. They must wholeheartedly accept less profits and learn to share the incomes with those who deserve the sharing. They must have this reversed thinking that something must be wrong if they become too rich while their employers are still poor. Foreign investors will need a lot of convincing, too.

Otherwise, “less profits” would discourage investment, make layoffs more frequent, send foreigners fleeing and politicians will say the economy is doomed. The term “Good economy” will need to be changed. It must mean an economy where company owners have appropriately-good lives without possessing limousines or private jets, where low-level workers do not have to struggle to make ends meet and where foreign investors are happy about that.

Morally and economically, it’s complicated already. Cue politics and an ultra-high daily minimum wage can spark a turmoil or moral and economic confusion. Check out for ironies Thaksin Shinawatra’s statement defending the Pheu Thai Party’s minimum wage pledge.

“Don’t forget that I became rich because I grabbed air and turned it into money,” the de facto patriarch of Pheu Thai said during an online “Live”. “Prime Minister Prayut (Chan-o-cha) has spent all his life with (conventional) budgets (so he couldn’t see it).”

For high daily minimum wages to really work, appreciation must be held back on people who managed to grab money out of thin air and, ironically, love of money must be a lot less. If Thaksin was giving importance to money-making genius, his statement sent out all the wrong messages, to entrepreneurs at least. They are the very group that must think of themselves less and more of others.

Minimum wage often sees a clash between smart money-makers (business executives) and those who are less smart on money-making but can justifiably claim that the world would have been different without them (workers). The governments, those with “facilitating”, not “enforcing”, role, is always caught in the middle.

Since the private sector hires more unskilled workers than the government, the minimum wage is usually decided through a tripartite system with business owners and workers being bigger stake-holders than politicians. This is not to say that politics can’t wreak havoc, though. Which is why, for unskilled workers to fully benefit, politicians should stay away, although some of them do own businesses, directly or indirectly.

Minimum wages for Thailand’s major economic areas and the rest of the country were increased in 2012 by the Pheu Thai-led Yingluck government from 221-159 baht to 300-222 baht. The final rates under the post-coup Prayut government were 330-308 baht in 2018. The post-election Prayut administration has overseen rates of 336-313 baht, with COVID-19 playing a big role in determining new numbers or periods of non-increase. (Before the 2019 generation, the Palang Pracharath Party promised rates of 425-400 baht.)

The pledged Bt600 is a big jump. Pheu Thai will have to convince entrepreneurs that paying unskilled workers more is the right thing to do. The party must also convince businesses that they shall not take it back from customers, shall not hire “cheap” illegal labour and shall accept that “happy” workers’ lives, not “beautiful” balance sheet figures, equate to company successes. It must ensure that unwanted labour migration or human trafficking will not intensify. It must tell foreign investors, both current and prospective, not to panic and stay away from Thailand.

Last but not least, it will need a second look at how the Thaksin empire came about.

And through all these, Pheu Thai will need to keep politicisation to a bare minimum, because politics can make rates absurdly low or dangerously high. Unless, of course, politics handles minimum wages sincerely and with great care.

Money is a funny concept, having morphed from deserved rewards into greedy and senseless opportunism. When someone earns more or unrealistically, it’s often at the expense of somebody else. To keep its promise, Pheu Thai has to navigate through a lot of complexities, because what it ultimately needs to do is not raising the bar, but making the bar disappear.

By Tulsathit Taptim