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ILO, Global Unions, Labor Movement, and Human Rights Activist Demand Labour Law Reform and Enforcement To Meet ILO Standards

On 24 July 2019, at Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT), director, leaders, and representative from International Labour Organization (ILO), 207-million membership International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 19.7-million membership International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), State Railway Workers Union of Thailand (SRUT), The Thai Airways International Labour Union (TG Union), and Human Rights Watch participated in the forum “ITUC Global Rights Index 2019 Asia Pacific - Violations of Workers’ Rights in Law and Practice in Thailand Including the Case of SRUT and TG union”.

The discussants touch upon the non-compliance of Thai labor laws with international standards on rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining for many groups of workers including civil servants, teachers and professors, migrant workers, and informal workers, as Thai government still has not ratified ILO Convention 87 and 98 (governing rights to association, organize , and collective bargaining) despite the demands from Thai and international labour movement, as well as ILO recommendations. This has caused numerous incidents of workers’ rights violations and anti-union practices in Thailand, which many of them have been reported to ILO-Committee on Freedom of Association (ILO-CFA). This also has made Thailand one of the countries with worst wealth distribution and high inequality, as the workers do not access right to freedom of association and organize to bargain for better profit sharing from the corporation and better social protection and safety net from the government.

The discussants also comment on the cases that leaders from SRUT and TG Union have been ordered to pay the damage claims in the case that SRUT had initiated rail safety campaign, and TG Union had participated in the dialogue with the management to increase wages in line with annual profit and cost of living. The discussants demand Thai government to stop prosecuting the union leaders who engage in legitimate union activities to protect membership and public interest in line with fundamental labour and human rights standards. They also request the reform of labour laws and legal protection to meet with international standards. This corresponds with the comment from ILO Director General Guy Ryder, who visited Thailand in late July to meet with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, Labor Minister MR Chatumongol Sonakul, and has gave an interview to Bangkok Post newspaper on 29 July[1] that Thailand has a very low union density and ILO has for a long time urged Thai government to ratify ILO Convention 87 and 98.

Graeme Buckley, Director to International Labour Organization (ILO) Country Office for Thailand, Cambodia and Lao People's Democratic Republic

“2019 is a very important year for ILO, it is our centenary, it is also the centenary of Thailand’s membership to the ILO. Thailand was a founding member, and I think that brings with it an additional responsibility.“

“Back, a long time, to when ILO was founded, and to the ILO constitution which clearly states something that is very important but it is easy to assume away or to forget. And that is ‘universal and lasting peace’ can be established only if it is based on social justice. And I think that is a very important message to keep reiterating.”

“Another message that is being reiterated many many times, and I am sure you have heard many times including this year is the idea that ‘labour is not commodity’ ”

“We have an explicit commitment in ILO Decent Work Country Programme, and that is to ratify ILO Convention 144 (tripartite consultation). In some way you can argue that Convention 144 is less problematic and less challenging than Convention 87 and 98 (rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining), but it enhances condition to ratify ILO Convention 87 and 98”

 “My message of optimism is that we can put an energy and effort into and hopefully achieve the ratification of (Convention 144) and in process use that as a vehicle to move beyond that and finally toward the ratification of (Convention 87 and 98) in the near future because that is desperately needed, long overdue, and will be welcomed by most sensible people”

Graeme Buckley takes the forum back to the genesis of ILO in 1919 where all member countries agreed that the universal lasting peace could not happen without social justice, and the labour was not commodity. Buckley voiced his concern that after 100 years has passed, it looks as though the world is facing the same challenges. He also observes that while the economy has had rapid growth, workers’ rights protection is facing challenges from the exploitation on right to organize and exploitation of migrant workers who work in very poor working condition, leading to the current economic, social and labour challenges. Buckley comments on Thailand’s non-ratification of ILO 87 and 98 conventions (rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining), despite the long demand from trade union, as “unfortunate”, and suggests that the ratification of both conventions should be public commitment. This non-compliance has caused challenges and difficulties for Thai trade unions, making it extremely hard for them to reach out to workers and mobilize, and keeping the union density very low in the country. Buckley further points out to the inefficiency of the tripartite consultation in Thailand, which oversees important matters such as minimum wages and social protection, is due to the fact that trade unions do not exist in half of the provinces.

Buckly criticizes the inability of migrant workers to form unions in Thailand as “rights abuse” which has made them vulnerable to exploitation and violation . He has witnessed that many fishing workers in Thailand live under the very poor working condition, and ILO is against such violation including the treatment of labour as commodity. The workers’ inability to exercise right to organize has led to the serious problem where the rise of productivity is not translated to improved wages. He, however, saw some progresses in the partnership between ILO and Thai government, as the Thailand’s tripartite body (consisting of representatives from the government, employer associations, and trade unions) has signed in the agreement to commit in its first ILO decent work country program. Buckley points out that the program, acting as a commitment of Thailand’s tripartite body to enhance a condition necessary to ratify ILO Convention 144 (tripartite consultation), can function as a vehicle to work toward ratification of ILO Convention 87 and 98 , which is long overdue.  He also points out that while Thailand being the first country in Asia Pacific to ratify ILO Convention 188 (working in fishing) and Forced Labour Protocol (P29) is impressive, there seemed to be an economic motivation, not concern on human and workers’ rights, that rapidly pushed forward the process.

Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary

“I haven’t seen a country in a long time where systematical lock-out, suspension of jobs, and no provision in the law for bargaining in good faith actually protect the employers who want to retain oppressive conditions”

“When we do our ITUC Global Rights Index and compile the results every year, it actually disgusts me that conditions this year in Asia Pacific. When the growth, in Thailand alone, of GDP in the last ten years has doubled, and yet your wages and your rights are being suppressed”

Sharan Burrow points out that while GDP in Asia Pacific region has doubled in the past 10 years, wages and workers’ rights protection remain suppressed. Wealth inequality in Asia Pacific has been massive for the region that is “heart and soul” of global economy. Burrow further comments that the conditions of workers’ rights protection in this region has deteriorated badly, which in the past years, 100 percent of the countries have violated right to collective bargaining, 95 percent have violated right to strike, 91 percent have excluded right to established or join union to some groups of workers, 73 percent have denied access to justice, 73 percent have deregistered unions, 73 percent have workers arrested, and 64 percent have restricted freedom of speech and assembly. Burrow expresses her concern on the heavy uses of precarious employment, namely subcontracted workers in this region. Thailand has recently been downgraded in ITUC Global Rights Index from rating 4 (systematic violations of rights) to rating 5 (no guarantee of rights). 

Burrow commented on recent Thai government’s ratification of ILO Forced Labour Protocol (P29) as a response to business pressure due to the threat of boycotting Thai export product, rather than genuine concern on the working condition of the workers. Thailand remains one of the four countries in Southeast Asia that have not ratified either ILO Convention 87 or 98, despite the labour movement’s demand for over 20 years. Burrow also remarked on the irony of Thai government’s attempt to play role in the UN Human Rights Committee, while rarely honoring the decision from UN Treaty Body or the recommendation from ILO. Currently  Labour Relations Act (LRA) and State Enterprise Labour Relations Act (SELRA) exclude 80 percent of the workers from right to organize unions. She also comments on the increasing uses of lockout, suspension, and bad-faith bargaining as the anti-union discrimination in Thailand.

Burrow demands Thai government to immediately reform labour law, and promises that ITUC , ITUC- AP, and ITF will continue to pressure for better respect of workers’ rights. She is thankful of ILO work in the continent. Burrow calls for Thai government to stop all retaliations on leaders from SRUT and TG Union, to ratify ILO Convention 87 and 98, and to enforce the protection or workers ‘rights in the country to guarantee that rule of law exists.

Shoya Yoshida, International Trade Union Confederation-Asia Pacific (ITUC-AP) General Secretary

“Yes we have right to refuse working in the unsafe working condition. Workers have right to increase wages. But how can we realize those rights? These rights should be realized by collective bargaining”

Shoya Yoshida expresses deep respect for State Railway State Railway Workers Union of Thailand (SRUT) and Thai Airways International Union (TG Union) leaders and reiterates that workers have rights to refuse unsafe works and to demand for better wages, and these rights can only be realized through collective bargaining.  Yoshida refers to the conclusions and recommendations from International Labour Organization –Committee on Freedom of Association (ILO-CFA) that strike prohibition in State Enterprise Labour Relations Act (SELRA) violates fundamental rights. Yoshida ensures that ITUC-AP will continue to support the workers’ fight for industrial democracy and workers’ rights which include rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and right to strike in Thailand.

Stephen Cotton, International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) General Secretary

“There are reactions from the employer and ultimately the government to make sure that the number of the workers in the unions in Thailand is kept low”

Stephen Cotton believes the lawsuits against State Railway State Railway Workers Union of Thailand (SRUT) and Thai Airways International Union (TG Union) are the “political cases”. He comments that 1.5 percent union density in Thailand is too low, and the labour laws in Thailand , falling below the internationally recognized standards, have been used as a tool to deny the rights of the workers. Cotton applauses the courage of SRUT and TG Union members ( who are affiliated to ITF) and other trade union members in Thailand, and shows solidarity and support with International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to organize more Thai workers into unions in order to demand better wealth distribution in the country.

Sawit Kaewvarn, General Secretary, State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation (SERC) and President, State Railway Workers Union of Thailand (SRUT)

“I believe that workers have right to deny unsafe work, we must be firm that we do not accept unsafe work”

 “I insist that unsafe work that put passengers at risk and workers risking their lives is never acceptable.”

Sawit Kaewvarn reminisces on the Kao Tao train derailment which had seven people killed and will reach its 10th anniversary on October 5th this year. Sawit pointed out the safety system on the train was not well prepared due to the low manpower, affected from the 1998 cabinet resolution that forbade the recruitment of new workers to exceed five percent of the retirees in each year. On the day of the tragedy, there was a heavy rain and the smoke from machine room entered the control room, causing two drivers to lose consciousness. The vigilance system, which would have automatically stopped the train, also did not function.

Kaewvarn referred to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) since 2002 which required State Railway Authority of Thailand (SRT) to ensure the safe condition of train before driving. After the tragedy, the union leaders led the rail safety campaign (which later encouraged Thai government to increase SRT workforce) and announced that all the trains must pass the safety testing before public use. Kaewvarn insisted that only the trains failing the standard were stopped, not all the trains. However, SRT later dismissed six union leaders from Hat Yai branch, and filed for Labor Court order to dismiss seven union leaders from Bangkok (who had seats in employee committee and were protected from dismissal without court order), and for 15 million THB damage claim on the latter group, which Labor Court ruled in favor of SRT in 2011.

Kaewvarn pointed out that International Labour Organization (ILO) has released several recommendations (through the complaints filed by International Trade Union Confederation [ITUC] and International Transport Workers Federation [ITF]) to Thai government to confirm what SRUT leaders did was in line with international labour standards. The thirteen union leaders were reinstated in 2014 after series of negotiation with SRT management, who insisted to not withdraw the lawsuit from the court proceeding. The Supreme Court would later uphold the decision from the Labour Court. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice Legal Execution Department ordered the SRT to start withholding wages of seven union leaders to pay for 24 million THB fine. That left Sawit to have only 300 THB left in his monthly salary after being deducted to pay fine and other loans he had made prior to the wage garnishment order.

Kaewvarn reports that the union and SRT are currently in negotiation to cancel or reduce the damage claims. However, he confirms that workers have right to deny the work that is unsafe for themselves and others, in line with ITF slogan “Safety First, Not Profit !”. Kaewvarn insists that he will continue to campaign for the law to protect internationally recognized rights.

Chamsri Sukchoterat, former president and current advisor to Thai Airways International Labour Union (TG Union)

“The company filed civil lawsuit calling the claims for the damages on the image from the workers assembly. There was nothing broken, no additional overtime working, no flight delayed. We did not do any real damage. What is the damages on the image then? It is the damages from the media coverage.”

 “The claim is in accordance with news paragraph, such as if one newspaper paragraph costs 30000 THB, the claim would time three meaning it would cause 90000 THB per paragraph. If there was a commentary article, the claim would add up. Eventually, it became 326 million THB overall!”

Chamsri Sukchoterat recounted on the Thai Airways debt relief plan in 2008 aiming to freeze wages for three years. The union viewed that as unacceptable as the debt was caused by miscalculated investment and purchasing, not because of the wages. Freezing of wages would put all the burden on the workers that had to deal with rising cost of living. In the past, the union acknowledged that the company was in deficit and asked the workers to concede on many points such as limiting overtime working, allowing the company to use outsourced workers, paying for their own working equipment, and working on holidays without special pays. The union has never demanded for unrealistic increases but asked for the wages to keep up with cost of living. The union could not accept the proposal to freeze wages for three years and petitioned to the Labor Minister, and the proposal was later withdrawn by the company.

The company announced seven billion profit at the beginning of 2013, and one month bonus for all workers with no wage increase. Off duty Thai Airways workers then gathered inside Suvarnabhumi airport and demanded to ask questions to the management. The union leaders then acted as a medium to assist that the gathering workers and management could talk, the workers then demanded for annual wage increase to the company. On the next day, there was a negotiation between the management and the union which was concluded that the union would check if the company had made seven billion profit as claimed, and the company would not interrogate or file lawsuits on the gathering workers. The union would later found out that company made only two billion profit and conceded to decrease the bonus payment demanded on the company, but insisted on the wage increase.

However, the company filed lawsuits to demand damage claims from four union leaders in 2014, despite no flight cancelled and no damage happened to the building. The company calculated the claims from the news article, which the Labour Court ruled in 2015 for four union leaders to pay 326 million THB to the company (case is now pending Supreme Court’s decision). International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), which TG Union is affiliated to, has met with Thai government representatives including Transport and Labor Minister, calling the damage claims as not realistic with the incidents, but might affect and intimidate the union leaders to further engage in the activities to demand justice for the membership.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Asia Division Deputy Director

“The situation is Thai government is not serious about fixing labour law”

 “One of the clearest indication that Thai government violates the right to freedom of association is the way that Thailand divides workers into different groups, private sector workers, state enterprise workers, civil servants, informal sector workers, migrant workers, and they are not able to come into one general union.”

Phil Robertson comments on the lack of political wills of Thai governments in the past years to ratify ILO Convention 87 and 98 (on rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining) to bring Thai labour laws to internationally recognized human rights and labour standards. Robertson also recounted on the history which state-owned enterprise (SOE) workers were divided from right to association and organize a union with private sector workers after 1991 military coup, weakening the already weak Thai labour movement that rights to associate, organize, and collective bargaining of civil servants, informal workers, migrant workers, teachers, and professors have either been prohibited or restricted. Robertson also criticized lack of legal enforcement and inability of labour officials to protect workers who organize unions, as they could easily be dismissed by their employers and the legal process took months or years which more often than not that these workers ended up taking severance pays while the attempt to organize union failed. Robertson also commented on the peculiar situation which over four million migrant workers cannot form their own union, and strike prohibition in SOE sector is against Human Rights convention and labour standards. In conclusion, Robertson addresses this as the fundamental problems where there has been no commitment from any government, past or present, to reform the labour law, as the government has only responded to the pressure from the business groups.

After the forum, discussants and participants engage in the campaign activities to demonstrate solidarity and support to leaders from SRUT and TG Union, as well as the cabin cleaners of Korean Air Lines (KAL) who are protesting against the unfair labour practive especially the discrimination on subcontracted workers, and American Airlines mechanics, who are demanding the employer to engage in good-faith collective bargaining negotiation.

Reported and Photos by Ussarin Kaewpradap/ State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation (SERC)