6 June 2024

Security guard Nopporn Net-aram does not expect much on Labor Day, marked on May 1 every year. Nor does he have high hopes of the May 14 election.

“I always work on Labor Day,” the 53-year-old said. “I don’t get paid anything extra for working on this public holiday. I just get paid the normal rate.”

Paid 529.50 baht for a 12-hour shift that starts at 6am sharp, Nopporn says he earns about 15,000 baht a month. Security guards, who are ubiquitous in the towns and cities of Thailand, are usually required to work every day.

Though his two children are already adults, Nopporn still needs to support his elderly mother. But faced with soaring living expenses, he can barely afford to give her 1,000 baht a month.

Asked about the upcoming general election, Nopporn said most political parties are making big promises – including a sharp hike in daily minimum wages.

“But I don’t know if they will be able to honor their pledges,” he said. “I feel like security guards have been forgotten. We hardly have any welfare.”

Direct demands

The Labor Network for People’s Rights has made no demands of the government this year. Instead, it has presented nine demands to political parties, including a rise in minimum daily wages to between 723 and 789 baht. The minimum wage currently ranges between 328 and 354 baht depending on the province.

“People need to support not just themselves but also their families,” said Tanaporn Wijan, a rights activist with the network.

Other demands made by the network include giving workers the freedom to form unions, protecting their rights to maternity leave, eradicating violence and harassment at workplaces, elections to select the Social Security Office Board, streamlining registration of migrant workers, making provident funds mandatory, and setting up a fund to compensate workers fired unfairly.

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What parties have promised

Pheu Thai has vowed to raise the daily minimum wage to 600 baht and the starting monthly salary of bachelor’s degree holders to 25,000 baht by 2025. It also promises to roll out a so-called negative income tax, subsidizing households that fall below a certain income threshold.

The Move Forward Party, meanwhile, says it will ensure the minimum wage rises each year, starting with an increase to 450 baht before the end of 2023. It also pledges to ensure overtime pay for people who work more than 40 hours a week, grant 180 days of paid maternity/paternity leave, and allow all groups of laborers to form unions.

Palang Pracharath is also promising significant hikes – between 400 and 425 baht for minimum daily wages and a starting monthly salary of 20,000 baht for bachelor’s degree holders and 18,000 baht for vocational graduates.

Moreover, the party pledges a five-year tax exemption for new graduates and two-year tax exemption for online vendors.

Workers swamped with debt

Dr Thanavath Phonvichai, president of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and head of its Center for Economic and Business Forecasting, said 99.1% of people earning less than 15,000 baht a month are in debt as their income does not cover their expenses.

“When they borrow money to make ends meet in the face of soaring living expenses, they go deeper into debt,” he said.

This year, the average debt of households earning less than 15,000 baht has risen to 272,528 baht – up from 210,000 last year, according to a recent survey by Thanavath’s centre. Such huge debt means an average of 8,500 baht of their monthly income goes on repayments, leaving them with little left over to cover living expenses. In the past year, about 41.5 percent of workers have defaulted on debt – up from 31.5 percent a year earlier.

“Our survey found that workers want the government to raise minimum daily wages, manage living-expenses issues, fight debt problems, tackle employment, promote equality, and provide better welfare,” Thanavath said.

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What workers say

Piyada Pethcharat, who earns 450 baht a day at an electronics company, said she is very interested in the promises to raise daily minimum wages but also worried that living expenses could rise even further following the big hikes.

“If big rises really happen, I hope the government will control the prices of electricity, public transport fares, and petrol,” she said.

After having worked for the company for 12 years, her monthly income is 10,800 baht based on 24 workdays. She gets extra pay only if she works on weekends.

Thanong Sanka, a 36-year-old mason, said he worked independently because he can earn between 500 and 600 baht a day – higher than the wage he would earn in the official sector.

“But I don’t have any welfare. I am quite worried too. What if I fall ill,” Thanong said. “There is no one to protect me.”

Recommendations from an expert

Assoc Prof Dr Kiriya Kulkolkarn, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Economics, said political parties have failed to present a holistic vision of what they could do for laborers.

“The hike in minimum daily wages may not be the right solution,” she commented. “The new government should focus on the overall picture before tackling the problems of each group of workers.”

Kiriya recommended that the incoming government focus on three goals – productivity, immunity and inclusivity. On productivity, the government should promote manufacturing technologies, high-value-added products, and improved output. The workforce must be upskilled and reskilled to demonstrate higher competence.

“They cannot pocket bigger pay without being more productive. Otherwise, global firms could relocate their manufacturing bases out of Thailand,” she said.

On immunity, the government should offer welfare and protection for people working outside the system, help them save money, and promote lifelong learning and upskilling to keep pace with fast-changing context and technologies.

“Without savings, many workers cannot pursue upskilling. They don’t have the time or money for training. The government needs to help them,” Kiriya said.

On inclusivity, the government should curb inequalities and reach out to vulnerable and informal workers or workers of subcontractors. More than half of over 30 million working Thais have jobs outside formal sector.

“I agree with political parties’ policies on land for farmers because these will help with security of livelihoods. But I don’t agree with a debt moratorium for farmers,” she added.

By Thai PBS World