“Companies also need to do more to ensure workers never pay [recruitment] fees in the first place,” said Neha Misra from the Solidarity Center regarding a rare award reimbursing at least 10,000 Burmese migrants for the excessive and illegal fees they were charged to secure jobs at an electronics manufacturer in Thailand.
In Thailand, where automotive assembly plants have temporarily shut down due to COVID-19, the closures have reverberated throughout the country’s supply chain, with many small- and medium-sized businesses laying off workers or freezing or cutting their pay. So when workers, unsure of their rights, turned for support from union organizer Mongkol Yang-ngam, he responded quickly—and creatively.
Mongkol, a seven-year organizer with the Thai Confederation of Electronic, Electrical Appliances, Auto and Metal Workers (TEAM), a long-time Solidarity Center partner, set up a “Labor Clinic” on Facebook. There, he answers questions submitted to the page and to reach as many workers as possible, posts video clips of himself responding to queries. But like any good union organizer, he also is taking the opportunity to educate and inform workers—through comedic skits that include playing guitar and singing labor songs he composed. His approach is a success: His Facebook Live events between March 31 and today, during which he answered questions and updated government’s policies, have drawn 22,000 views.
Mongkol, 47 (nicknamed Poo, or “crab” in Thai), has been instrumental in helping workers form unions at workplaces such as Volvo Truck, 3K battery (owned by Hitachi), and many automotive parts factories that supply to major brands such as Toyota or Honda. He also serves as a paralegal at the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee (TLSC), a national-level trade union organization with more than 270,000 members. At TLSC, he advises workers on their right and assists them in filing grievances with the Labor Court.
Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Piya Kritayakirana recently interviewed Mongkol about his successful outreach to workers during the novel coronavirus crisis. The interview, conducted in Thai and translated, has been edited for clarity and length.
Piya Kritayakirana: Can you please give a bit of your background and how you became a trade union organizer for TEAM?
Mongkol Yang-ngam: I grew up in Samut Sakhon (an hour outside Bangkok) where my family had a small business, and I got a job at Thai Sin rubber factory near my home. The factory was already unionized. When I was eligible to apply for union membership, there was a vacant position on the union board, so I applied and got the position.
I worked eight years in the factory, and also did an extra work to earn more income. My extra work required me to carry heavy rubber parts hundreds of times a day. I quit the factory as my body started to give out, and worked at restaurants, where I witnessed how badly workers were treated by customers, making me want to do something to help exploited workers.
PK: From my understanding, your responsibilities include organizing new unions and providing legal advocacy and assistance. Can you describe both?
MY: Trade union organizing and legal advocacy have to happen concurrently. In Thailand, employers view unions as rivals. We have to make workers confident that the union could stand against the attack and can co-exist with the employer. We have to prepare them through rights and legal education. My work providing legal assistance and advocacy is crucial, as many workers in Thailand cannot afford lawyers. The TLSC Legal Department provides free legal service and representation to fill this gap.
PK: How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect your work, both in terms of trade union organizing and legal advocacy?
MY: The pandemic heavily affects our organizing work, as we cannot meet face-to-face with workers. We try to maintain conversation though social media platforms such as Facebook or Line (a messaging app), and sometimes call to check up on the workers we are trying to organize.
The impact on legal advocacy is also huge. There are already many violations, such as layoffs or dismissals without severance pay. Court appointments are being postponed due to the pandemic, and workers seeking relief are running out of money and are forced to agree to the employers’ poor offers. Most employers are using the pandemic as an excuse to deny unions’ bargaining proposals, even when the records clearly show their operations have not been hurt by the crisis.
PK: When and why did you start the Labor Clinic Facebook Page?
MY: I have to give most credit Brother Chansin Sapnonwai (former union leader at Honda Automobile who briefly worked as a trade union organizer with the global union IndustriALL). In mid-2019, we both recognized workers did not like to study about labor law, but liked to watch things that were entertaining. We then came up with the idea to make the labor law education entertaining. We tried to make video clips that were not too long, to attract more workers’ attention.
PK: What are the formats you use in Labor Clinic Facebook Page
MY: We try to use all available formats. I just did Facebook Live for an hour to update the situation from each company. I also use this to show how unions can be the solution for workers. I said in the Facebook Live that unionized companies such as Auto Alliance or Ford are paying workers higher than the legal requirement during the temporary suspension, while many nonunion companies ask workers to agree to wages lower than the law requires.
PK: What are the violations you find during the COVID-19 pandemic?
MY: Most violations deal with the employers’ non-compliance with the law on temporary suspension of business. Section 75 of the Labor Protection Act requires employers who temporarily suspend business to pay 75 percent of wages to their workers. Many employers invoked these clauses, but then told the workers to apply for social security unemployment benefits rather than covering their workers’ reduced wages. This already happens to many hotel workers.
Some companies ask workers to resign without compensation, and promise workers they would be rehired once the situation got better. I encouraged workers to be realistic. First, who knows when anything would get better? Second, how can you put all your trust in the company? Or do you put a company’s hat on and think that it would actually be to their benefit to recruit a new and younger workforce with lower wages and fewer benefits? I encourage workers to get what they could for now.
PK: How do the workers who view your Facebook page use the knowledge and information you give them?
MY: After watching, they are more aware of their rights. They are also more curious and keep coming back with more questions. Once the workers learn of their rights and realize the employers have fooled them on many occasions, they become very concerned and very aware.
PK: What more do you think Thai labor movement should do to help workers during the COVID-19 crisis?
MY: First, union leaders have to keep themselves updated of the situations and policies. The government has no consistency and the employers look for any opportunity to put all burdens on workers. The work of the union leaders and activists has to be more proactive. We can no longer wait for workers to come to us with questions but we have reach out to them and try to dig in on the violations that happen to them.
My organization, TEAM, is currently compiling all the new government policies to inform and communicate broadly with workers. TLSC leadership is also talking about setting up a grievance filing center.
We also have to discover the mutual interests and concerns of all workers, educate them about the benefits of union membership and show how unions can be the solution.
PK: Lastly, what message of solidarity would you like to convey for workers around the world who are struggling through similar circumstances?
MY: This is a global crisis, and when it happens, it always impact workers the most. I want to see the global labor movement to come out and show support for each other. We have to build awareness for workers all over the world that we are the essential people who keep the world moving during the time of crisis. When we are aware, and we believe in ourselves, it will be the time we truly change the world for the better of workers.
Just as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the massive global economic and social inequality around the world, with workers in the informal economy and supply chains, and migrant workers—many of whom are women—especially marginalized, so, too, does it offer the potential to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global challenges.
Around the world, unions and worker associations are taking the lead in championing worker rights and in doing so, demonstrating a path forward through collective action to achieve shared prosperity and sustainability. As the novel coronavirus spreads, unions are demanding safe and healthy conditions for workers who must remain on the job, and that they be compensated during forced worksite closures. The following is a small sample of union actions around the globe, reported in large part from Solidarity Center staff in close contact with union partners.
In Haiti, where garment factories were among facilities closed to prevent spread of the virus, workers were asked to return to pick up paychecks (for the days worked prior to the closures) in staggered stages so as to prevent crowding and potential contagion. It is standard practice for workers in Haiti’s garment industry to receive their wages in person, in the form of a cash, because most earn too little to maintain a bank account for check deposits, and paychecks are immediately consumed on basic goods.
Despite a government order to distribute pay to groups of 10 workers at a time, one factory employer simultaneously convened all 2,000 workers to collect their wages, despite the danger. In addition, some factories now are reopening to make masks, in large part for export to the United States, a move that puts at risk workers, their communities and the country’s already fragile healthcare system.
Although some factories have announced measures to protect workers’ health and safety at the factory, they do not adequately address risks workers face going to work as they walk through congested areas and travel up to an hour on crowded tap-taps (covered trucks serving as public transportation). Solidarity Center union partners will play a critical role in monitoring the enforcement of these measures and advocating for additional safeguards.
Four Haitian garment-sector unions, all Solidarity Center partners, issued a joint proposal to President Jovenel Moïse calling on the government and employers to respect International Labor Organization (ILO) protocols on COVID-19 in the world of work. The coalition also called on the government and employers to adhere to Haitian labor code stipulating workers receive pay when the government closes workplaces, and urged government and employers to pay workers the equivalent of the daily wages they earned on average in the three months prior to factory closures. The coalition also recommends the government provide support to informal workers, cease collecting income tax and reallocate funds from the country’s cancelled Carnival event to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The unions include Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs- euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye.
Palestine General Federation of Trade Union members are fanning out to 12 checkpoints along the Israel-Palestine border to address the health needs of the tens of thousands of workers returning home to the West Bank and Gaza as their worksites shut down in Israel, a large-scale movement that is exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
Iman abu Salah, a member of PGFTU’s organizing team at Bartaa’h barrier near Jenin city in the West Bank, told Solidarity Center staff that three organizers are stationed in two shifts, connecting with between 100 and 200 workers per shift. Union members assist returning workers in completing detailed forms to ensure accurate reporting of health issues, and the unions share their reports with emergency health committees in each district. PGFTU members also are providing workers with information on protecting against the virus, as well as with union contact details in their city or village. Unions and health teams joined together to provide sterilized buses to take workers directly to their home city, village or refugee camp.
In Myanmar, as around the world, garment workers are especially hard hit by the #COVID-19 crisis as global retailers cancel orders, with factory employers laying off workers without pay, firing union supporters and forcing nonunion workers to remain on the job without safety protections, according to union leaders. Garment workers and their unions are mobilizing to demand that factories close for their safety and are seeking full pay for time off during the closures. Unions are pushing for employers to sign agreements that factories will recognize the union when they reopen and maintain all previous wages and benefits.
Unions representing garment workers in Lesotho, where more than 45,000 workers make jeans, T-shirts and other goods for export, are calling on the government to provide full wages to furloughed workers during the 21-day government-imposed lockdown to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. The unions are also demanding that those required to work be provided with free transport in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Workers have “sacrificed their lives for the country with meager wages and are continuing to keep the economy going as essential workers during this time,” according to the statement by the United Textile Employees, National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union and the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho. They “not only contribute to the GDP, but support numerous families, unemployed relatives and poverty-stricken families with their wages.”
The Albanian telecommunications union won a four-hour work day for those not teleworking, as well as company-provided masks, while in Kyrgyzstan, the union federation is urging the government to include remote work standards in the labor code. Unions in Albania, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro have released statements calling on governments to improve social, economic and public health policy to protect both their membership and society.
In Thailand, Solidarity Center’s union and migrant worker partners are communicating with workers via social media, as unions set up an online Labor Clinic to create and post videos on worker rights and benefits during layoffs and plant closures, and are providing instructions for applying for unemployment and social welfare benefits. Unions are hosting live Facebook forums enabling workers to send in real-time questions and comments. Unions in the aviation sector are calling on the government to protect full-time permanent and subcontracted workers, and provide health and safety measures in line with international labor standards at all workplaces. Migrant worker organizations also are reaching out to migrant workers in Burmese with information on preventing and identifying COVID-19 symptoms and with information on locations to access health care.
The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) supported the launch of a regional isolation center for workers, and unions throughout Ethiopia are driving anti-stigmatization conversations that seek to encourage workers to report cases of infection and are negotiating with the government to ensure workers are protected on the job during the pandemic.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear to workers, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce. Additional Solidarity Center partners—the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA)—are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public.
Indonesia factory-level unions are negotiating masks and other safety protections for workers, and while they are achieving success, a shortage in personal protective equipment is hindering efforts. For example, 60,000 workers, members os National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner, successfully negotiated with their employer to receive masks, but the company is unable to procure such a large supply. The company recently agreed to allocate some production line to produce the masks to protect workers. Indonesian unions are urging the government to provide support for informal workers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the working population in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
Led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), unions in South Africa established labor law helplines for their members to address employers’ increased abused of worker rights during the crisis.
In Morocco, where hotels have been turned into hospital facilities, the Federation Nationale des Hotels, Restaurants et Tourisme (FNHRT) is assisting hotel workers in collecting unemployment benefits and maintaining contact with workers across the sectors who have lost their jobs. The FNHRT is affiliated to the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT).
Suthasinee Kaewleklai, coordinator for Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) in Thailand, recently was honored for her work by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT).
“Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable and abused workers in every country,” says Kaewleklai. “Worker rights are human rights, and migrant workers are entitled to fundamental rights without discrimination, including the freedom of association and collective bargaining. We will fight shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers.”
Kaewleklai received the award during an NHRCT seminar last week, held in conjunction with International Women’s Day to honor women human rights defenders. The nonprofit MWRN, a Solidarity Center partner, has provided a crucial bridge between workers and access to legal redress for unpaid wages, occupational injuries and other forms of workplace abuse since it was founded in 2009.
“Whether they are protecting rights in the judicial process, fighting against impunity for rights violations, protecting democratic freedoms and the rights of communities and migrant workers, or fighting for freedom of expression, equality and the reduction of gender biases, their courageous stories are models and inspirations for future generations to learn and remember,” Angkana Neelapaijit, National Human Rights commissioner, said during the award ceremony.
Risking Physical, Verbal Assaults to Support Workers
Kaewleklai, a long-time trade unionist, began championing worker rights in the 1990s, when she worked at a factory in the Rangsit district, north of Bangkok. A co-founder of the factory’s union, she and other workers successfully challenged their employer’s refusal to regularly pay wages, and she successfully took legal action after the employer fired her and other union activists.
She later worked as coordinator for the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee, another Solidarity Center partner, and has championed the issues of working women, successfully campaigning to make International Women’s Day a national holiday.
At the MWRN, Kaewleklai advocates for the rights of migrant workers to form unions, negotiate with their employers for better working conditions, and urging lawmakers to ratify International Labor Organization standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining. She has helped migrant workers on chicken farms and elsewhere recover unpaid wages and attain safe working conditions.
She repeatedly has been verbally threatened, physically attacked and put under surveillance by state and non-state actors for her work to protect and promote labor rights and the rights of migrant workers. Currently, Kaewleklai, along with 14 migrant workers and other human rights defenders, is challenging criminal and civil charges filed by the poultry company, Thammakaset Company, following her advocacy on behalf of the company’s underpaid migrant workers.
Despite rulings by authorities and the courts against Thammakaset—including a January Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling ordering Thammakaset to pay $53,600 to 14 former migrant workers for violations of the Labor Protection Act—the company continues to pursue charges against Kaewleklai and the others. Human rights defenders believe the charges are part of a strategy to harass human rights defenders and migrant worker rights advocates.