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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 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. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) presented the labor rights defenders awards to Kaewwan, Aung Kyaw and others May 22 in an event hosted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Thailand: Police Get Manual to Combat Human Trafficking. January 4, 2012—Thai police will now be equipped with a detailed manual helping them identify and address human trafficking, a growing crime in many countries that involves forced labor or sexual exploitation. The Solidarity Center provided technical and financial support to the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) for the project. The HRDF then engaged in a series of lengthy consultations with a range of Thai government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to compile the 346-page guidebook.

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. Brother Bualoi worked for 13 years as an organizer for the Confederation of Thai Electrical Appliances, Electronic, Automobile and Metalworkers (TEAM), a longtime Solidarity Center partner.

Burmese Migrant Workers Double Their Wages after Strike. May 23, 2012—As workers around the world celebrated International Labor Day at the beginning of May, more than 500 migrant workers on the Thai-Burmese border took collective action to demand that 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. As a result of their two-day strike, the workers succeeded in doubling their wages and winning important gains in workplace conditions.

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.

After Floods Recede, Thai Unions Rally around Migrant Workers. December 15, 2011—With support from the Solidarity Center, Thai unions are assisting thousands of migrant workers who are grappling with the aftermath of the historic October 2011 floods that swamped 1,500 factories in more than 20 provinces, killed 700, and left hundreds of thousands of workers jobless. On December 18, International Migrants Day, we recognize the efforts, contributions, and rights of migrants worldwide.

Thai Unions Support Workers Left Vulnerable by Historic Floods. 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.

Thai Labor Relations Committee Orders Reinstatement of Fired KFC Workers. October 7, 2011—Last week the Thai Labor Relations Committee (LRC) ordered the reinstatement of three former managers at KFC outlets in Bangkok who were fired for trying to form a labor union. The petition for mediation, signed by nearly 300 KFC employees, accused Yum Restaurants International (Thailand) Company, the operator of the KFC fast food chain, of dismissing the three unfairly after they joined with other workers in demanding better pay and welfare, including asking permission from their employer to establish a union. 

Rights Advocates Denounce Dismissal of Thai Railway Workers. October 3, 2011—The dismissal of seven officers of the Railway Workers’ Union of Thailand (SRUT) for taking part in a safety-related work stoppage two years ago amounts to a destruction of the union and a gross human rights violation, say worker and human rights advocates.

Global Labor Deeply Disturbed by Decision of Thai Labor Court. July 29, 2011—The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) denounced the decision of the Thai Labor Court, which upheld management’s right to dismiss seven officers of the State Railway Workers’ Union of Thailand (SRUT) for their part in a safety-related industrial action two years ago. The court further allowed a fine of 15 million Thai Baht (approximately $500,000).

Rights Groups Call for Investigation, Improved Safety after 16 Burmese Migrant Workers Die in Truck Crash. April 13, 2011—Rights groups are calling on the Thai government to rethink worker safety, conduct investigations, and provide remedies in the wake of a collision that killed 16 Burmese migrants and injured more than 50. At 7 a.m. on April 4, 2011, a 24-seat bus carrying more than 70 migrants from Burma was hit by a 10-wheeler truck on a major highway in Samut Sakorn Province in Central Thailand.

Statement of support from State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) to Wisconsin state public employees, March 1, 2011. See what workers around the world are doing to support their union brothers and sisters in Wisconsin.

Thai Auto Union Leader Attends UAW Convention in Detroit. Visut Ruangrit, general secretary of the Federation of Thailand Automobile Workers' Unions, was one of nearly 40 international guests from 17 countries who attended the 35th Constitutional Convention of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. The convention was held in Detroit, Michigan, June 14-15, 2010. “I feel privileged to have been part of the UAW convention," said Ruangrit. TAW is a longtime Solidarity Center partner.

Solidarity Center CPD Commends Human Trafficking Editorial, Clarifies Definition. Applauding the need expressed in a Bangkok Post editorial to address the core issues of human trafficking, Solidarity Center Country Program Director/Thailand Rudy Porter also points out that forced and bonded labor exists "not only for commercial sexual exploitation, but also in the factories, plantations, boats, and homes where traffickers have forced foreign and Thai workers into slave-like conditions."

Thai Unions Establish Help Centers for Laid-Off Workers. A longtime Solidarity Center partner is one of 34 labor organizations in Thailand that have joined forces to help unemployed workers obtain legal assistance, verify whether layoffs were justified, and coordinate their findings with the government.

A Global Retreat As Economies Dry Up. As world trade plummets, bustling ports stand idle and foreign workers track back home, says Anthony Faiola in this front-page Washington Post article (March 5, 2009).

Assessing the True Cost of Shrimp. In this May 2008 interview, the Solidarity Center's Ellie Larson and Tim Ryan make recommendations for American consumers who want to make socially responsible decisions about the products they buy.

Solidarity Center Partner Co-Sponsors Bike Rally Against Trafficking in Thailand. The Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), supported by the Solidarity Center, the International Labor Organization, MTV Exit, and a half-dozen other human and worker rights groups, held a three-day bicycle rally in Thailand to raise awareness of the fight against child labor and human trafficking.

Human Trafficking Report Applauds Solidarity Center Partners as Anti-Slavery Heroes. The U.S. Department of State’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report highlights the work of two longtime Solidarity Center partners: Sompong Sakaew, founder of the Labor Rights Promotion Network (LPN) in Thailand, and Marietta Dias, an Indian retiree and naturalized Bahraini citizen who created the Migrant Workers Protection Society.

Legal Clinic for Burmese Migrant Workers. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrant workers in Thai factories along the Thailand-Burma border are underpaid, overworked, attacked, and murdered. The Solidarity Center and the Thai bar association have opened a legal clinic to help protect these workers’ rights.

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