October 25, 2011—Devastating floods at levels not seen in more than a half-century have left large parts of Thailand under water, forcing many workers and their families to abandon their homes and jobs to seek shelter. The official death toll stands at 356.
||SERC members, led by General Secretary Sawit Kaewwan (in black vest), stand knee-deep in floodwaters to unload a truck with supplies. Photo courtesy of SERC
The floods, the result of an unusually severe monsoon season in Southeast Asia, have closed some 14,500 factories in 20 provinces in major industrial areas of northern Thailand and around the capital city, Bangkok, according to the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare. The government of Thailand estimates that 665,000 workers have been laid off. The long-term damage to industry could be $6 billion.
Most employers continue to pay some legally mandated compensation to laid-off workers. But there are growing fears that the floods will not subside for several months and some factories may not reopen.
Workers and their families in Bangkok are bracing themselves and moving their belongings to higher ground to save what they can. The homes of several employees of the Solidarity Center office in Thailand have been flooded. There is also a shortage of drinking water, rice, and other food products throughout the rest of the country.
Solidarity Center partners, including the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation (SERC), the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee, and other trade union federations, have started a flood relief campaign to coordinate with other relief efforts and employers. They are also collecting donations from members who live in areas not directly affected by the floods.
SERC General Secretary Sawit Kaewwan led a group of trade union leaders and activists on several visits to northern Thailand and to the outskirts of Bangkok in order to assist relief efforts. In northern Thailand, the floods were so severe that Sawit and his team had to leave their car and seek transportation on military trucks.
“We are collecting donations—food and money—from our members,” Sawit said. “We are working with employers of state-owned enterprises to also give support, and we are setting up tents to hand out donations.”
Solidarity Center partner organizations, including the Human Rights and Development Foundation and the Migrant Working Group Network, sought to rescue a group of 300 Burmese migrant workers trapped in the Rojana Industrial Park in Ayutthaya, which has been under water for about two weeks.
Many migrant workers lost identification papers in the floods and are afraid to seek help. In addition, many may not be eligible for social benefits even with proper documentation.
Unions are especially concerned because so many workers have lost their jobs and incomes and will experience even greater difficulty in supporting and feeding their families. Unions fear that the government of Thailand, under pressure by employer groups, will cancel implementation of a long-promised campaign pledge to increase the minimum wage to 300 Thai baht (about $10) per day. They are calling on the government to develop urgent and long-term relief measures, compensate workers for lost income, and create policies and programs aimed at helping employers repair and reopen their factories.