Thailand’s latest COVID-relief scheme hit by controversy

A total of Bt210 billion is being pumped into Thailand’s latest COVID-19 relief effort, but experts say needy Thais could fall through cracks in the scheme.

The Rao Chana (We Win) scheme aims to cover almost half the population with payments of Bt7,000 each.

However, complaints about the scheme’s eligibility criteria have already triggered doubts about its effectiveness and a change to its screening process.

So far, 6.8 million out of about 10.6 million people who have registered for Rao Chana have passed the screening process, Kulaya Tantitaemit, inspector-general of the Finance Ministry, said on Wednesday.

Initially, applicants had to show they earned annual income of no more than Bt300,000 in 2019.

But after complaints from the public, the Finance Ministry adjusted the eligibility criteria on Wednesday. The change means applicants can now use their taxable income from last year, instead of 2019, as evidence of eligibility.

So far, 390,000 people have appealed after their applications were rejected, said Kulaya. Those who ask the Finance Ministry to review their applications can now use their 2020 taxable income base as evidence, provided they file their online tax returns within seven days of the appeal, she said.

Kulaya also said that those who do not have smartphones could register for Rao Chana handouts at Krungthai Bank branches nationwide between February 15 and 25.

Glitch in earnings criteria

Netizens argued that 2019 income may not reflect the current situation since so many people had lost their jobs since the COVID-19 crisis emerged early in 2020.

Economists who specialise in labour issues also shared that view.

“The government should use up-to-date information as much as possible,” said Lae Dilokvidhyarat, an economist at Chulalongkorn University.

Also, the appeal process must be accessible at a low cost for applicants, he added.

Nor did he agree with the second main condition for Rao Chana applicants – total bank deposits of no more than Bt500,000.

The government should instead use time-deposits in its calculation, since savings accounts at any one time don’t necessarily reflect financial status, he said.

Currently, eligible applicants must have bank deposits of no more than Bt500,000 at 2020 year-end. Those with more money in the bank can afford to take care of themselves, Kulaya explained.

Yongyuth Chalamwong, research director at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), suggested that the Bt300,000 income condition was not fair for self-employed workers who are saving for retirement.

Their income may have risen above Bt300,000 in 2019, but they also need to save for the future.

He also asked why the government set the ceiling at Bt500,000 in combined bank deposits.

Meanwhile, workers under the Social Security Fund are covered by a separate scheme of Bt4,000 handouts. Yongyuth asked why mainly self-employed Rao Chana registrants are getting Bt7,000 each, when Social Security Fund members are only receiving Bt4,000.

He suggested the government should look to the United States, where everyone except high-income individuals gets the same-value COVID-relief cheque.

Migrant workers not covered

He also questioned why migrant labourers were not eligible for state aid despite being forced to make Social Security contributions. Since they pay taxes, they should get the same treatment as Thai workers, Yongyuth said.

Authorities estimate that 9.27 million workers under the Social Security Fund will get handouts worth a combined Bt37.1 billion.

Meanwhile, about 31 million self-employed workers and state-welfare card holders should be eligible for Rao Chana handouts.

The Bank of Thailand found that three groups – the self-employed, low-income workers and tourism staff – are less cushioned against income shocks than other groups because they are still suffering from the first wave of infections.

The combined income of self-employed workers outside the farm sector dropped more than 5 per cent year on year in the fourth quarter last year, according to the central bank.

By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk

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