Construction workers left without assistance after lockdown

Interview by Nuttaphol Meksobhon
Photos by Thanapol Lertjatuporn and Burapat Chanpratad

Under the disease control measures announced on 27 June 2021, all construction work in ‘dark red’ zone provinces must pause, while workers are not permitted to leave their camps after several Covid-19 clusters were found in them. They are now left with very little assistance from the government.

The order was made under the Emergency Decree and announced in the Royal Gazette at 1.00 on 27 June 2021. Under this order, all construction sites in Bangkok and 5 surrounding provinces, along with 4 provinces in the Deep South, must be put under lockdown to control the spread of the virus.

The Social Security Office initially said that it would pay the workers 50% of their daily income and 3 meals a day would be provided for those living in camps who are certified by their employers. They would also receive Covid-19 testing and would be sent to hospitals in the social security scheme if tested positive.

The Ministry of Labour also said that it will be considering allocating vaccines to construction workers, and that sites may request permission to reopen if every worker has been vaccinated.

However, as of 14 July, construction workers in central Bangkok still have not received any assistance from the government.

Construction company left to shoulder expenses

At a large construction site on Silom Road, surrounded by metal fence, city law enforcement and military officers are stationed at the only entrance to prevent workers from leaving without permission.

A construction worker camp in Silom

Phadon Silapaphakdi, a representative of the company running the site, told Prachatai that the lockdown order meant that the company’s operations must stop, causing a loss of income. They also have to take care of around 3000 workers. He said that while they are waiting for government aid, the company is responsible for the expenses of taking care of the workers and their dependents, which have already cost them over a million baht.

Phadon said that the company is providing the workers with 3 meals a day, costing 120 baht per person per day. The company is also buying rice, dry goods, and groceries for the workers if they want to cook for themselves.

However, he said that donations from the public are helping, while their human resources department has already contacted the district office, but it is unclear when assistance will arrive.

As for the Covid-19 testing, Phadon said that before the closure was announced, the government came to test the workers, but they have not received testing in July. As the company needed to reopen the site as soon as possible and cannot wait for the government-provided testing, the company had to bring in doctors to give swab tests to the workers, which cost them 2000 baht per person.

He also said that migrant workers covered by social security have been vaccinated, and the company will be scheduling those who are not covered for the ‘alternative’ Sinopharm vaccine.

Phadon would like the government to consider easing the lockdown measures early for sites where all workers have been vaccinated, as the closure period is too long, and they have to complete work by the scheduled dates.

“Bang Rak District Office said that after 15 days, they will be doing another evaluation. They may do random tests at the camp to see whether there is anyone else infected among people in the camp, and if there is anyone who is still not vaccinated and is not infected, they will be vaccinated,” Phadon said.

“I understand that right now it’s a crisis everywhere. I want [the government] to give us assistance promptly and to everyone. It’s probably quite difficult. I want them to take care of us as soon as possible, but now we have to help ourselves as much as we are capable.”

Donations become necessary

Boom, an employee at a construction company in Thong Lo, has started donation drives for dry goods and other necessities for construction workers.

Boom said that she has to call for donations because she would like to help lessen the company’s burden, as they now have to shoulder the expenses of caring for their 3000 workers while they wait for government assistance which hasn’t arrived.

Boom, a Thong Lo construction company employee

She explained that she is responsible for caring for the company’s worker camps in Thong Lo, and that her company is running several sites and has several worker camps. One camp may have anywhere from 100 to 1000 workers, depending on the size of the project, but there is a total of around 3000 workers employed by the company.

Boom said that, if the company is paying around 100 baht per person per day to care for their workers, it will cost them 300,000 baht per day, not including the expenses for the workers’ dependents, who are also under the company’s care.

Boom said that she decided to ask for donations because the aid money the Ministry of Labour promised to give them has not arrived, and if the situation continues without assistance, she thinks that the company will not be able to cover the expenses.

“I’m not taking sides, but I’m living with facts. I’m telling you what I saw. On the fifth day, a lot of people came to see us, whatever government agencies, but when they came, they just looked, took photos, and then left. When I ask about assistance measures and things, or when I’m not at the camp, I got my colleague to ask the government agency that came, they told us that we have to wait. They’re waiting for orders. It’s all according to orders. Nothing is clear to us,” she said, adding that the assistance they’ve received from the government so far is, at most, an aid package and some fa thalai jon medicine.

After her call for donations, a lot of people contacted her and came to the camp to offer food, which helped with the food shortage, but Boom said she didn’t want to resort to donations unless she has no other choice.

“[The workers] don’t want to receive donations from other people. They want to work for money. They prefer to earn money from their own efforts,” Boom said.

Boom is concerned about migrant workers not covered by the social security scheme. She explained that the workers in their camps are either employed by the company and are covered by social security, or they are employed by the company’s subcontractors, and while they have work permits, the workers are not covered by social security and are excluded from getting Covid-19 testing, treatment, and vaccines. They also do not receive government aid money, and if they are not able to work, they will have no income. The company is providing this second group with food, and is paying half their Covid-19 testing fees.

Boom said that no government official has come to her company’s camps to provide testing.

“I haven’t seen them yet. Have other companies seen them? I don’t know, but as far as I’ve talked to people at all camps, they haven’t come. There is only the managing director getting vaccines for migrant workers, and registering Thai workers for vaccines on the apps,” she said.

In front of a construction worker camp in Thong Lo

When asked how the government is helping construction companies if their workers test positive for Covid-19, Boom said that the company is responsible for any worker testing positive. She said that at another camp run by her company, 40 workers tested positive, but when they contacted the relevant government agencies to have the workers admitted for treatment, they were not able to find a hospital as beds were full.

“People who have Covid-19, they don’t have a bed. They’re migrant workers. They don’t have social security, and they don’t have a bed. They have to stay at the camp for 14 days until they’re almost cured. They are treated according to their symptoms, get their temperature taken. We do everything ourselves in the camp,” Boom said.

Boom said that she would agree with the government’s measures, if they ordered closure of construction sites where large clusters are found, but the closure order must come with a clearer policy for support, such as how to get assistance and when they will be paid so that the workers, who have to stop working, know what they will be getting and can plan for the future. She said that the current policies are unclear, and the officials are evading the issue.

She said that she would like the government to provide them with testing and vaccines, and to allow construction sites to resume work before the 30-day period ends. She said that if this can be done, construction work can get back on track sooner, and the government will have to pay less in assistance.

“The Ministry of Public Health hasn’t come to any worker camps to swab their noses. There is nothing yet right now. I think that right now, if there was active testing, I’d like it. If you were to announce that money is coming in, and in 7 days, public health is going to come to test your noses, you’re going to get vaccinated on this or that day, that’s it for us. It will work, and we can open up for work sooner,” Boom said.

“You should come and do your own fieldwork to see that if the camp doesn’t have any worker with Covid-19, if you tested everyone and no one tested positive, they get vaccinated and they can go to work. Suppose around 500 or more camps that were ordered closed, you go in and do testing, vaccinate them, that’s it. Okay, you can work. That’s 1 camp done. Your expenses are finished, and they can work. You don’t have to pay them compensation. Then you continue with the rest.”

Migrant workers share concerns for families

Vee, a worker from Cambodia, is working at a construction site in Thong Lo

Vee came from Cambodia to Thailand 10 years ago to do construction work. After the construction sites were closed, Vee said the first days were difficult, but with the company’s support and food donations from the public, he doesn’t feel that it is difficult anymore, and he wanted to thank those who donated food. He said that they are now provided with eggs and groceries for their own cooking.

Vee said that, due to the hot weather, he is spending more time outdoors than inside the rooms, and he felt frustrated that he is not allowed to go outside, and he is concerned about money because he has to take care of his family.

“I want to work. I have to send money to my children, so they can have milk and something to eat at home. My parents are taking care of my children. They’re old. It’s difficult,” Vee said.

Vee said that, if the government extends the lockdown period, he is concerned that he won’t be able to support his family.

“I think that, if I don’t get to work, then I won’t have money to send home, then my family is going to have a hard time too, because they won’t get my money. When I’m here, I’m really living well, but my children are at home. I need money for my children, and I want the government to let us go back to work for our families. I’m only concerned about my family. I want the government to let us go back to work soon,” Vee said.

Boy came from Taunggyi, in the Shan state, around 7 – 8 years ago. He has been living in construction worker camps in Thong Lo with his daughter, Pi Mai (“New Year”), so named because she was born on New Year’s Day. 

When the lockdown order was first announced, Boy said he felt it was too sudden, but he followed the order because he was too afraid to go anywhere, but he said that if it is necessary for them to leave the camp, they can notify the camp supervisors, who would ask them each week whether anyone has to go anywhere and they would submit to the district the list of workers who would like to go outside and their reason for leaving the camp.

Boy said that he still needs to take his daughter to see the doctors, so he was still allowed to leave.

Nevertheless, Boy said he is concerned about the month-long closure, as he now has no income and cannot send money home.

“I want to go out and work too. It’s better than staying here. Our camp doesn’t have any more problems with Covid-19. I want to work,” he said.

Song, a worker from Myanmar, carrying Boy's daughter

Song, another worker from Myanmar, said that the lockdown caused difficulties for both him and his family in Myanmar. When he buys necessities from the shop inside the camp, he has to open a tap. Meanwhile, the economy in Myanmar is declining, and he has to send money home to his parents and children.

“It’s not just being closed 4-5 days, it’s a month, and there isn’t any assistance right now. Even food, there are people who donate a little,” Song said.

“I have many responsibilities. My parents are back home. They are calling me. I’ve stopped working right now, I’m having a hard time, but my parents are having an even harder time. I get paid daily. I don’t have a lot of money. If I stop working, then I don’t have a future. Each day I get 300 – 400 baht.”

Meanwhile, Boy said that the problem is not the camps but the government’s way of handling things.

“If you lock down workers’ camp, then it’s going to increase. The problem is not the worker’s camps. I think it’s that they can’t control it. The workers are orderly. Actually, between the site and the camp, there is a company vehicle taking us back and forth between the camp and the site. They don’t let us out,” Boy said.

Loan moratorium is needed, says worker from Chaiyaphum

Anucha

Anucha, a worker from Chaiyaphum, usually works as a safety officer and is responsible for hygiene in the camp. He said that the lockdown means that he is earning less, while his expenses remain the same. He also has no money to send home, while still having to pay his debts.

“I have to pay my car instalments and stuff. Right now I’m still paying, and they are still asking,” Anucha said, adding that loan moratoriums were available during the first lockdown, but there is nothing this time around.

Anucha said that the closure order made him feel like he was in prison and had no freedom.

“I used to be able to go places and work. Now that it’s like this, it’s like I’m trapped, like I’m in prison. It’s not any different. I can’t go anywhere,” he said.

“I want to tell the government to help take care of us, to give us compensation. I still have expenses. Even if I’m living like this, my expenses don’t go down, because I’m not alone. I have a family to take care of, my parents, my children. I also want a loan moratorium very much. They are still after me with demands. The finance company won’t stop.”

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