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In Thailand, the Solidarity Center and its partners push for enforcement of international labor standards and national labor law, strive to protect the rights of migrant workers and prevent human trafficking, and seek legal redress for trafficking victims.

Migrant workers peel shrimp in the seaport town of Mahachai not far from the Burmese border.

The Kingdom of Thailand has a proud history marked by independence and leadership. Never colonized, it is a constitutional monarchy with a population of 63 million. More than two-thirds of Thais live in rural, agricultural areas of the central, northeastern, and northern regions. However, as Thailand continues to industrialize, its urban population is growing. Thailand also receives a constant influx of Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian, and other migrant workers along its borders.

Thailand’s recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, triggered by the collapse of the Thai baht in the face of severe financial overextension, relied largely on external demand from the United States and other foreign markets. In 2005-2007, economic expansion slowed as a result of domestic political uncertainty, rising violence in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, and repercussions from the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The current global economic crisis has further weakened Thailand’s export-driven economy, and official unemployment is expected to increase from 400,000 to 900,000. Principal export industries include textile and garment, computers (Thailand is one of the largest manufacturers of hard drives in the world), automotive, and seafood processing. Shrimp exports alone bring in an estimated $2 billion a year, roughly 2 percent of the Thai GDP.

Constitutional reforms and parliamentary elections in late 2007 transferred power from a military-installed government to one elected by popular referendum. Although Thai unions actively promoted a return to democracy and advocated for constitutional reforms that supported worker rights and citizen input, the elected Thai government, ruled by the People Power Party (PPP), stalled proposals to further worker and union rights. Despite groundbreaking provisions in the new constitution that protect the right to organize and bargain collectively, the government failed to adopt International Labor Organization Conventions 87 and 98, which cover these rights, and its labor law is not in compliance with ILO core labor standards. As a result, only 2 percent of Thailand’s nearly 40 million workers belong to unions. A new government, led by the Democrat Party, formed in December 2008 after a Thai court disbanded the PPP for election corruption. This government has been willing to engage with union leaders but has moved slowly to codify worker rights in Thai law.

Under Thai labor law, workers in the private sector have the right to form and join unions. But membership and eligibility restrictions undermine this right. For example, members of a given union must work for the same employer, so if a worker is fired, he or she loses union membership. Another provision in the law excludes migrant workers from forming their own unions and from holding union leadership in existing unions. A different law covering workers at state-owned enterprises is equally onerous. The constitution grants freedom of association to civil servants, but parliament has not passed implementing laws, so these workers are denied their right to form unions.

Migrants must have their employer’s permission to change jobs. If they disregard this requirement, or if they are fired, they can be immediately deported. Thai employers use these provisions to blacklist migrant workers and prevent them from exercising their freedom of association. The Working of Aliens Act (2007) authorizes payment of rewards to informers whose actions lead to the arrest of undocumented migrant workers. Migrant workers are often arrested and abused by local authorities aiding and abetting employers.

Despite the ban on anti-union discrimination, employers frequently dismiss workers who are trying to form unions, often claiming that the dismissal was not union-related and therefore legal. Labor courts not only are slow in handling disputes but also tend to side with employers in cases where union leaders have been fired. Fines for wrongful dismissal are too low to be dissuasive (under $300), and jail sentences for firing union members have never been enforced. Workers fired for union activity sometimes receive severance pay awards from the Labor Court but are rarely reinstated.

While Thai unions press for attention to these broad worker rights issues, a slowing world economy dominates the concerns of rank-and-file union members. The global financial crisis also threatens to increase the risk of human trafficking for labor exploitation. In 2007 and 2008, several severe labor trafficking cases, exposed through the cooperation of unions, NGOs, police, and government officials, liberated hundreds of modern-day slaves, many of them children. Despite the enactment of a new anti-trafficking law in 2008, however, justice for trafficking victims is still out of reach. Even in the most extreme cases, prosecutors have not brought charges against the perpetrators of these egregious crimes.

Thailand among Countries Failing to Address Human Trafficking. June 20, 2014—Thailand was among six countries that failed to comply with the minimum standards to address human trafficking over the past year, according to the State Department in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) released today.

Workers Stunned at Thailand’s Vote Against Forced Labor Protocol. June 13, 2014—Thailand’s State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) is expressing shock that the country’s new government was the only nation to vote against a new legally binding treaty requiring punishment of perpetrators of forced labor.

Thailand Vows to Ratify Two Key Worker Rights Standards. October 9, 2013—The Thai government agreed to ratify two key international worker rights standards this week, following a 3,000-strong rally made up of workers from all national federations, unions, networks of migrant workers and informal workers, and allied organizations.

Thailand: Founders of Migrant Workers Network Get ILRF Award. May 23, 2013—Secretary General Sawit Kaewwan of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) and President Aung Kyaw of the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) received awards yesterday in Washington, D.C., for their work to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers in Thailand.

Thailand: Police Get Manual to Combat Human Trafficking. January 4, 2012—Thai police will now be equipped with a detailed manual, created with Solidarity Center support, that will help them identify and address human trafficking, a growing crime in many countries that involves forced labor or sexual exploitation.

Solidarity Center Mourns Loss of Thai Union Leader. October 5, 2012—The Solidarity Center mourns the unexpected passing of Charan Komkhumtot, better known as Bualoi.

Burmese Migrant Workers Double Their Wages after Strike. May 23, 2012—As workers around the world celebrated International Labor Day May 1, more than 500 migrant workers on the Thai-Burmese border took collective action to demand their employer improve wages and working conditions in a garment factory where they were earning less than 25 cents per hour for an 11-hour shift, according to reports.

Democracy Activist Aung San Suu Kyi Meets with Burmese Migrant Workers and Solidarity Center Partner Organizations in Thailand. June 1, 2012—In her first visit outside her home country since 1988, Burmese democracy activist and member of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi visited migrant worker communities in Samut Sakhon Province, where 300,000 of Thailand’s estimated 2.5 million Burmese migrant workers live and work.

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