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After their visit to Laos, verification coordinators Juliette Li and Annabel Meurs returned to Thailand to continue their stakeholder consultation and observe an audit.
February is in the dry season of Thailand. Walking on the streets of Bangkok, it is hard to imagine that the water was up to 10 metres high here not too long ago.
Thailand is still dealing with the after-effects of the flooding with communities struggling to rebuild. Also many factories were hit by the floods, particularly electronic factories in Ayutthaya, a city at the north of Bangkok. Many of the garments factories were forced to close for a few months. During that period, many workers were laid off without receiving legal compensation. Thai Labour Solidarity Committee received a number of complaints, but many of these could not be followed up. Telephone communication was very difficult and constantly interrupted. After the flood, many factories decided to relocate or work with subcontractors. It is hard to enforce the law when this has happened.
According to key stakeholders, the most important development in the Thai textile industry is the increase of minimum wage. The new Thai government announced an increase from 215 Baht to 300 Baht per day in Bangkok for all sectors, which comes to 7 600 Baht per month. While this is a substantial increase,most labour organisations say a living wage would be above 10 000 Baht, a number which is widely agreed on by academics and some politicians.
To illustrate these numbers: workers spend an average of between 2 500 to 4 000 on one shared room or studio with a private toilet. Water, electricity and communication cost between 500 and 1000 Baht. Food and transportation cost another 3000 to 4000 Baht, meaning that most workers have to work overtime to earn enough for a decent life, even with the new minimum wage. The implementation of the new minimum wage, moreover, has been delayed. Thai government quoted last year’s heavy flood as one of the reasons.
Commonly known as the sunset industry, the textile industry in Thailand seems to be diminishing. Many of our stakeholders believe T-shirt making may be gone in a few years. What remains is lingerie and high-tech sporting goods. The strongest contributors to the Thai economy are the electronics and car industries. Production of garments is likely to move to Vietnam and Cambodia, and perhaps Burma.
In addition to the minimum wage, migrant workers also remain a major concern for the garment sector. Many migrant workers are from Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia, but the majority are Burmese. Migrant workers struggle with the language and with work permits. They cannot form or lead a union. Thai law states that one needs to be at least 20 years old and a Thai citizen to be eligible for such positions.
Spending a few days in Bangkok you can’t help but notice the paradox in this city. Income differences in Thailand are among the highest in the world. In our business, we look at the working conditions in factories on the outskirts of the city. In the city, however, you experience the consumer-minded society of Bangkok. Shopping malls where fashion is sold both for the cheap as well as the high-end market are everywhere.