Subcontracted workers are often the first to be axed when costs need to be cut. It might be a cost-effective solution for investors, but it threatens many people's livelihoods.
Sanonoi Suesart was one of about 200 workers who gathered at a carpet factory in Saraburi province on Feb 27. They were not protesting against the factory owners as they did not work there, but had come together because word had spread among them that they would be able to get advice on their rights from a union leader at the factory.
"We wanted to see Katekaew Meesri, a union leader at the factory. We wanted to ask her advice on the rights of subcontracted workers," Ms Sanonoi said.
Ms Sanonoi and her friends work for the Royal Porcelain (Public) Company (RPC), two kilometres away. The factory also has a labour union, but they felt they could not ask for assistance there.
"It's very painful not knowing our rights as subcontracted workers. Our friends who are being laid-off told us that with the advice and assistance of Katekaew and Chartchai Paisen [a union leader at another company in Saraburi] they got the chance to negotiate with concerned agencies," she said.
A few days earlier Mr Chartchai ran into some laid-off RPC workers at the Saraburi Provincial Labour Office (SPLO). On learning of their problems, he suggested they contact Ms Katekaew as their factories are closer than Mr Chartchai's. Later when they met Ms Katekaew, she gave them the information they needed about their rights.
Sriporn Ungkwan was a subcontracted worker, one of many laid-off who came to Bangkok to protest.
"My friends and I went to the Provincial Labour office and asked them to help us as we were being laid-off without any compensation. We didn't know our rights but felt we weren't being treated fairly," she said, explaining the plight of subcontracted workers.
"We have no rights to sick pay or holidays, if we work only half a day, we get no payment and we're not entitled to severance pay either," she said.
Ms Sanonoi, who is still working at the factory, confirmed such practices. "My colleagues and I have been working alongside staff with the same job, but the differences are that I got only 174 baht a day and had to take unpaid leave when I fell sick," said Ms Sanonoi, adding that many have been hired as subcontracted workers for eight years, but were not entitled to any of the rights given to permanent employees.
Ms Sriporn was in the first batch of people to be laid-off. "The union in my office only told us not to sign letters of resignation, but we didn't know what else to do," Ms Sriporn said of the advice she received from the PRC union members, adding that subcontracted workers are not allowed to join the labour union.
Ms Sriporn felt that they must act, but they didn't know what to do or how to obtain their rights. After learning about their rights, they tried to identify what they could do to make their voices heard at the concerned agencies. One thing they did was travel to Bangkok and protest, which helped them get their compensation.
"I have to thank the Government Pension Funds office for taking up our case and paying attention to the plight of workers at a company in which it holds shares. I have to thank many other concerned agencies as well," Ms Sriporn said.
"I could not forget Katekaew who gave us information. She had to take holiday leave to join us to protest in Bangkok. She stayed overnight with us on Rama IV road and she was with us all the time," Ms Sriporn said, adding that people might say it is none of Ms Katekaew's business. "But I felt that she sacrificed her money and her time to help us - it is her union's sprit and she got nothing from us."
Ms Katekaew is a small woman with a big heart. She has been a union and committee member for 15 years.
"I've been studying the labour laws and am aware that many of our fellow workers have no knowledge about them. That is why I want to help," Ms Katekaew said, adding that she has seen different companies and investors helping each other out. "Why not our workers too?" she asked. "It's difficult to address all workers' problems, but subcontracted workers encounter more troubles and are vulnerable to cost cutting."
Ms Pimpa, a union leader at RPC, said she does not ignore the fate of the subcontracted workers. "I told them not to sign the letter of resignation and told them their rights, but I couldn't really contact them after that," she said.
She said she does not mind that the subcontracted workers sought help from another union. "Since we cannot contact them and they were not members of our union, it's good that they could find help," she said.
Ms Pimpa said her union has a labour standards committee that has been monitoring the situation of subcontracted workers. "Since March last year, we have submitted our recommendations to our company about the situation of subcontracted workers, and the company has promised to take up the issues, but we have to wait for it to take action.
"We have also coordinated with the administrators when they contacted our union to ask if they should take back the workers who left on Feb 28 and protested at the SPLO. Our union recommended to management that we should get them back," she said.
"We have also recommended that our company hire some of the subcontracted workers, who work hard and are skilled, as permanent employees. But we have to understand the company has not got many orders and faces economic difficulties," she added.
A few weeks ago the union distributed information about articles 118 and 119 of the Labour Protection Law, but Ms Pimpa said the workers haven't had the chance to study them carefully. (See story, right).
There are different ways of assisting subcontracted workers. Some unions have been fighting alongside subcontracted workers. For example, the struggle of the Thai Industrial Gases Labour Union, which has helped subcontracted workers back to work.
At the eastern seaboard industrial estate, some unions have been active in protecting not only their members but also subcontracted workers. According to the Eastern Labour Union Network, 50 companies on many industrial estates in the eastern provinces have layed-off, as of Feb 24, 10,509 workers over the past few months. Of these, 6,428 were subcontracted workers. The majority of the companies give the economic situation as the reason for laying-off the workers.
Without help from the unions, more subcontracted workers might be laid-off. Ms Chamaiporn is one of many active union leaders in factories in Chonburi province, and she said that the work of subcontracted staff is as good as that of permanent staff, but they get paid less and are deprived of many rights.
"When we learned that more subcontracted workers would be laid-off, I accompanied them to see some cabinet members who came to the eastern seaboard for a meeting to raise the issue. We questioned the threat to the subcontracted workers, and then the officials at the Ministry of Labour discussed the matter with the company and finally they were laid off," she said.
Ms Chamaiporn and other union leaders try to educate their members and subcontracted workers about articles 11(1), 75 and 118 and 119 of the labour protection law and some international labour laws.
She has also been fighting for subcontracted workers to be entitled to a housing allowance as well as equal pay for equal work.
Ms Chamaiporn said she is concerned that many unions in the eastern region would not help because they sympathise with the owners, who use the current economic downturn as an excuse. This also echoes the ideas of Sripai Noonsee of the Rangsit Area Workers' Network.
Some unions are being threatened, with employers telling them that if they want to save the jobs of subcontracted workers, permanent workers must go.
Bunyuen Sukmai, secretary-general of the Eastern Labour Union Network, said there were reasons unions could not extended a helping hand to subcontracted workers.
"While there is no clear law allowing subcontracted workers to join a union, the law allows employers to hire subcontracted workers.
"Moreover, many companies increasingly prefer using subcontracted workers or outsourcing their work," he said.
Educating subcontracted workers is more difficult than union members. "They are encountering day-to-day difficulties. It is very hard for them to pay attention to related laws or informal education," he said, adding that some workers are confused about where the work went and who was ultimately responsible for their working conditions.
A part of article 11 of the Labour Law was removed by the National Legislative Assembly in 2008, meaning subcontracted workers could no longer file charges against their workplace as they do not work for the company but for labour agencies.
Mr Bunyen believes that many employers use divide and rule tactics.
"When the permanent workers were on strike, some employers immediately hired temporary workers to replace them. This has undermined the negotiating power of unions, and this is why many workers and union members don't look at temporary workers or subcontracted workers as their friends," Mr Bunyuen pointed out.
Ms Katekaew said it would be nice to allow subcontracted workers to form a union. "I wish we could have a clear law. I wish we did not divide our unions into many small fractions until they have no power," she said, adding that it would be better if unions tried to adopt a one union concept, that would include all workers. "No matter where they work," she added.
Wilaiwan sae Tia, chairwoman of the Thai Labour Solidarity Networks, and her member organisations have set up a centre for workers - both permanent and temporary - to complain about work related issues.
She has been campaigning for equal treatment of temporary workers. "But the government doesn't pay attention to our pleas," she said, adding that if migrant workers get paid less, many investors would prefer to hire them, that is why they campaign for equal pay for equal work.
"They are human beings like us, so why should they get paid less? If their work is up to standard they should get equal pay," she said.
However, she pointed it out that sometimes workers have to understand the company as well. "Some unions can be uncompromising, and that can do more harm than good, as many companies will threaten to move to the border provinces and hire cheap labour," she cautioned, adding that patience is needed during this economic downturn.
Ms Sripai, a leader of the Rangsit Area Workers' Network, does not agree. She pointed out that may union leaders do not pursue their causes because they have being convinced that their boss are having a difficult time.
"But I would insist that they [the union leaders] must stick to their guns and ask their bosses where their accumulated wealth and profits are. They should use some of the profits from previous years to compensate us or make investments during an economic repercussion.
"We are workers and have pushed the economy forward and made the company profits for years. They asked us to sacrifice, but how about them," said an outspoken worker who was always being laid-off because of her outspoken views.
Even if Ms Sripai is unaware that William Shakespeare wrote "there is no darkness but ignorance", that is also her opinion.
"I think the recession has its solutions if only investors do not ignore the plight of their workers," she said.