Violation of labour rights impacts the US GSP suspension: Thai unions give warning

Thai state enterprise trade unions and the international labour movement have discussed solutions to the violations of workers’ rights which led to the US suspending GSP for Thailand. The unions also warned that the Thai government’s lack of understanding will affect trade opportunities with other countries.

Last Wednesday (8 Jan 2020), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC), labour unions representing workers in Thai state enterprises, organised a forum to voice their concern that the violations of workers’ rights which led to the US GSP suspension will affect trade opportunities with other countries.

The forum was held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok. The discussants included Cathy Feingold, ITUC Deputy President and Director of the International Department of the American Federation of Labor-Council of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), Sawit Kaewvarn, SERC General Secretary, and Chalee Loysoong, Thai Labour Solidarity Committee (TLSC) Vice President, with Sakdina Chatrakul Na Ayudhya, an academic specializing in labour history, as moderator.

The forum provided the opportunity for Thai and international labour leaders to discuss, exchange, and suggest solutions to the problems of workers’ rights violations and anti-union practices which led to the USTR’s announcement to suspend Thai GSP on 25th October 2019, and to provide a channel for the press and concerned participants to ask questions and share opinions. 

Cathy Feingold, union leader and activist from the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO and 200 million-member ITUC, said that the American labour movement had advocated since the 1980’s enforced compliance with ILO core labour standards as a condition for GSP recipient countries, in order to prevent any country building a comparative advantage and reducing production costs by violating or restricting workers’ rights, which include the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Feingold also explained that the GSP suspension is not about the US government pressuring Thailand to give more rights to migrant workers, as the majority of the cases in the GSP petition dealt with violations against Thai workers, such as the cases of the State Railway Workers’ Union of Thailand (SRUT), Thai Airways International Labour Union (TG Union), and Mitsubishi Electric Labour Union.

The filing of the GSP petition aimed to encourage respect for internationally recognized labour standards regardless of race or nationality. In the 2019 ITUC Global Rights Index, Thailand was given a rating of 5, or a country with no guaranteed rights. The suspension did not happen just because of one case but due to systemic violations of rights and the government’s failure to enforce labour standards. A union density of one percent is too low and affects workers’ bargaining power; accordingly, the international labour movement will continue to struggle for workers in Thailand to have their rights respected, and to have access to the rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining in order to improve their lives. 

Feingold also commented Thai Government might not truly understand the real impact of the GSP suspension, judging from its comments that only a few Thai exports would be affected. The suspension in April would be one-third of the total benefits. The view of Minister of Labour that the problems could be resolved by relying on the advice of technical advisors, not trade union leaders who understand the issues, is also very concerning. All exchanges with the Thai government will be passed on to the US government. The EU and Swiss governments, who are looking to negotiate FTA deals with Thailand, will also have to hear about workers’ rights violations in Thailand, as compliance with internationally recognized labour standards is also a condition of their FTAs. 

Sawit Kaewvarn, SERC General Secretary, reported on the meeting between Feingold and Minister of Labour Chatumongkol Sonakul to discuss the window of opportunity to resolve the issues before GSP is suspended in April 2020. The current crisis is nothing new as Thailand has previously been under several boycott threats due to non-compliance with international human and workers’ rights.  It was previously listed as a Tier 3 country in a US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report and yellow-carded by the EU regarding Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU). Those crises eventually led to cooperation between the government, employers and trade unions which helped improve the situation. However, the first step to resolve the problems is to admit and to speak the truth, not deny that there is any violation. Sawit gave his case as an example, as he is one of the SRUT leaders who were dismissed and are currently being prosecuted in the Criminal Court. His wages are being garnished and he only has 300 baht left each month, in retaliation for the union’s campaign to demand train safety after a train derailment caused 7 fatalities.

Sawit further stressed that nowadays the conduct of business and compliance with human rights are inseparable. The Thai government has signed many human rights agreements such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), but rarely does it honour their provisions. Thailand has also been a long-time recipient of US GSP benefits but has also failed to comply with the condition that internationally recognized labour standards must be promoted and protected. In the future, there is a greater chance that countries failing to meet these standards will have their exports boycotted. Recently on 28 November 2019, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), with members all over Europe, co-signed a letter with the ITUC calling on the Thai government to resolve all labour rights violations as detailed in the GSP petition. The ETUC, which also works with the EU Parliament, will also ensure that all EU members and other European countries understand the issues in Thailand before proceeding with any trade negotiations, including FTAs, as prior compliance with ILO core standards is required in such trade deals.

Sawit also recounted how the TLSC and SERC have assisted migrant workers in Thailand so that now they enjoy some rights of association and the right to bargain with an employers’ association that has over 20 member companies. Despite the continuation of violations and the inability to register their own unions, migrant workers have come a long way from the past when they were completely denied all rights. Sawit said that he is now more concerned with Thai workers, as many sectors, including civil servants and public employees, do not have the right to organize and to join unions. Public employees nowadays fall under many types of employment, and most lack protection under the social security and labour protection acts, and receive less than the minimum wage paid to Thai and migrant workers in the private sector. Sawit also revealed that he and other union leaders have been called “traitors” for reporting violations in Thailand to the international community, where he insists that cooperation among labour movement must transcend borders. The American labour movement has disagreed with and opposed many of the US government’s policies, and so has the Thai labour movement. Workers’ organizations such as the ITUC or AFL-CIO are brothers and sisters to Thai workers and workers all over the world, as they aim to ensure that economic development happens concurrently in compliance with human rights, including workers’ rights, not just the numeric growth of GDP that leaves workers who make up the majority in the country to be exploited and violated. 

Chalee Loysoong, the TLSC Vice President, insisted that the violations detailed in the GSP petition mostly occurred against Thai workers. Thai labour laws have long failed to meet international standards as Thailand has not ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98, which are the core standards that promote the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining that would lead to other rights and protections. The Thai government almost ratified the two conventions during the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, but the process was delayed due to complicated parliamentary and legal requirements. Ratification then was pushed back after Abhisit dissolved parliament.

He recounted that he started working with the international labour movement about a decade ago as there were so many workers’ rights violations and anti-union practices. He collected over 10 cases in the first complaints sent in 2013, which included violations at Yum Restaurant, Electrolux, and the SRT. Chalee insisted that US government and the USTR had repeatedly sent their representatives for discussions and investigations with representatives of the Thai government and trade unions. The announcement of the GSP suspension has gone through a thorough process and not just happened overnight. 

Chalee added that many violations have occurred since the first report in 2013. One of the most serious examples was the case of Mitsubishi Electric, where discrimination and retaliation included the company’s ban on union leaders and some members from returning to work after the end of the dispute, forcing the workers to participate in de-programming activities including military-style training to make the workers feel guilty about invoking their bargaining rights, and making it a condition of reinstatement that workers must no longer engage with the union. 

Chalee also pointed out that he was fighting for subcontracted workers who received lower wages and benefits than permanent workers despite having the same job description. While the workers won a decision of the Supreme Court in 2012 that there must not be any discrimination in wages and benefits, the Ministry of Labour has refused to formulate ministerial regulations. This shows the failure of the Thai government to enforce labour protection in the country, as subcontracted workers suffering discrimination have to file their own complaints to the Labour Court, instead of having a ministerial regulation to automatically enforce equal wages and benefits. 

Chalee said that the situation still has not improved after the announcement of the GSP suspension as many cases of labour rights violations and anti-union practices have happened since. 

For example, Mizuno Precision in Ayutthaya dismissed the founders of the union one day after the first union congress; Pongpara Codan in Samut Sakhon shut down their plant with 1000 workers (700 of them union members) but re-opened at the same location under a new name and registration, asking the laid-off workers to re-apply with the wages and benefits reset; and Seishin in Chonburi shut down their plant without paying wages or severance pay. While the government believes that the GSP suspension would have a minimal effect on total exports, Chalee questions the reputation of the country, and if Thailand wants to be perceived as a country that develops by “suppressing the workers”. Chalee called for the government to have a clear direction and road map, with a timeframe to tackle the problems, to involve union leaders who understand the issues in the taskforce, and to improve cooperation among ministries such as the ministries of Labour, Commerce, and Foreign Affairs, in formulating a concrete plan to resolve all issues and raise international labour standards in the country.

After the forum, Sawit Kaewvarn, SERC General Secretary, read the joint statement of the ITUC and SERC demanding that the Thai government resolve labour issues by complying with international labour standards and principles that will be beneficial to both Thai and migrant workers in Thailand in promoting decent working conditions, which will result in having the US government review and possibly revoke the GSP suspension. 

SERC also recommend that the Thai government work intensively with legitimate Thai trade unions to promote decent working conditions as a guideline to solving labour problems sustainably. The union also stated that it always has a strong commitment to fully cooperating with the Thai government in resolving labour issues.



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