Because labourers build the country

When the state locked down workers’ camps without providing assistance to camp residents, the volunteer network ‘No One Cares’ was born.

Volunteers in the “No One Cares” network, a group that provides support to people living in workers’ camps, will readily tell you that their work is not charity.  They are expressing gratitude to workers who have built the country. They also hope to draw more political attention to labour issues.

Having failed to halt the spread of Covid-19, the government announced a lockdown of construction workers’ camps in 10 provinces for a one month period, from 28 June – 27 July 2021.  This Order No. 25 all but abandoned the workers.

Socially-insured workers with names on employer-approved lists were told that they would receive half-wages during the lockdown as compensation.  However, according to a construction worker housed near Thong Lor, government support initially amounted to little more than a bag of fatalaijon a local herb wrongly believed to prevent Covid infection.

Announced on a Friday evening, the lockdown was imposed the following Monday morning.  So short was the notice that workers, Thai and foreign migrants alike, had little time to prepare and many found themselves stuck in camps without work or money.

Official data indicated that there were a total of 575 labour camps in and around in Bangkok when the lockdown began. According to Nirat Trairongkaubon, the coordinator of “No One Cares”, many camps were not registered and the number was much higher, as many as 800-1,200.

These provided residence for an estimated 100,000 workers.

With just 17 members, the “No One Cares”  group faced a huge challenge - building bridges between people in the camps and Bangkok residents willing to donate food, medicine, and other necessities.

‘No One Cares’ - a response to state irresponsibility

Nirat was a restaurant owner whose business was early on affected by government lockdown measures.  The income from his “Tam Tam Somtam Pattaya” restaurant vanished and he had to close down its Pattaya branch.

When he heard that workers were starving in camps, he decided to use his restaurant to prepare food for them.  Traveling from one camp to the next, he realised that all were lacking in basic necessities.

After he posted stories about this on Facebook, many of his friends became interested in helping.

“Things peaked with the explosion of Ming Dih Factory”, said Nirat.

On the day of the explosion in King Kaew, a populated area near Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Nirat learned that a camp situated 5 km. from the factory had not been evacuated. Although the evacuation radius was extended from 5 to 10 km. the camp supervisor disagreed, saying that “5 km. is far enough. The fire won’t reach here”. When the fire was extinguished, he added, “It’s already out. There is no need to evacuate anymore”.

In the face of this official indifference, the “No One Cares” group expanded its support to workers’ camps all over Bangkok.  They developed a database, surveying and mapping camps around the city.  They also used social media to develop links between each camp and nearby donors and volunteers -  the origin of the group’s Facebook page. The group’s Thai name - People Who Take Care of Their Own - does a better job of conveying their intentions - supporting people when the government fails to do so. In contrast to the pace of government compensation, the group’s assistance was immediate.

“Our name is very clear. Let’s take care of our own. From the beginning, we decided to deal with the problem as quickly as possible, in part because we could not afford to do this forever - it takes too much energy - and in part because we were not trying to make merit donating things but were helping people to get through another day without hunger and sickness. [In truth, the responsibility for] these people sits with trade unions actively engaging with the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, and local MPs.”

“If you ask what our team wants the most, it is for people everywhere to put pressure on the government to handle this issue. It is their job. We pay taxes so they can take care of us”.

“I feel as if the state is leaving us to die, as if we were in some sort of survival game. Those who make it, make it. Those who don’t can be blamed for having not taken care of themselves well enough. Or blame can be placed on the pandemic. We all know the state never takes responsibility for anything”, said Nirat.

It is not making merit but showing gratitude to the workers who build the country

“I would like to thank everyone who has contributed and supported us in this cause. Personally, I do not see this as making merit. I do not see labour as an object for merit-making, for making us feel good about ourselves. If you think that way, it’s fine, but I strongly believe in human dignity. Whether a person carries good karma or bad, he or she is still a living human being. And starvation is real. Hungry people are real. Hunger is a scary thing. And it is terrible”.

“After camps received donations, they sent us messages saying things like: thank you so much, we are not starving to death any more, my baby now has milk to drink, thank you. Our replies to each camp were the same. We said we were expressing gratitude to those who have so worked hard and earned so little. Without workers, there would be no houses. Without workers, there would be no bridges. Without workers, there would be no roads. Students with bachelor’s degrees or even vocational certificates, students with degrees from overseas will not do this work”.

“This is the time we can repay those who have played a part in building this country. Without workers, this country would not exist.   This is why I keep it in mind that this is not about making merit. Everyone has human dignity. They should not receive our donations so we can feel great about ourselves. It is something we want to do as a human beings who see their fellows struggling”.

“I have shared this thought with the people around me including members of the team. I believe many of them see it the same way. In the end, their actions were motivated by the fact that they could not stand to see another human being suffer and die. I feel that this is better for me. I do not expect them to thank me or feel grateful to me. I just expect them to not die. Period. That’s it. How they feel or how they respond is something we cannot control or worry about”, said Nirat.

State of the camps: people who have recovered may get re-infected. Some pregnant women could hardly find a place to give birth.

Nirat said that conditions in the camps probably matched the picture most people have in their heads: walls and roofs made of silver zinc sheets which collect heat. A slightly better version would be a knock-down building, maybe 2 floors. Some camps consisted of small containers. At the front of the camps staff, soldiers and police officers kept watch. At some camps, no one was on duty but patrols came by every two hours or so.

What the camps had in common was poor quality of life. At many camps, limited facilities were shared by too many people.

“In the worst ones I saw, it would flood when it rained … people had to stand. They could not continue sleeping because of the flood.  Even the sick ones … they had to escape the rain first, wait for it to stop and the floor to dry before going back to sleep”, said Nirat.

Descibing the atmosphere in one camp, Nirat noted:

“The Vibhavadee 20 Camp has 190 workers, 70 of whom contracted Covid-19. Those 70 people were kept separately in tents, similar to those in a temple fair, with slightly-elevated beds covered with rubber sheets. Some people got infected since the beginning and were not sure if they were recovering or not. They also risked re-infected, as they remain with the infected group. Some camps only kept sleeping quarter separate, leaving workers to share cooking space, utensils, and the environment”.

In another camp in the Onnut area with over a hundred workers, most migrants, four women were in late-stage pregnancies. After our group provided food support, we found that one of them was giving birth.

“The contractor said that the night before, he had to arrange for an ambulance to take one woman in labour to the hospital. I asked him why he did not come to me.  Had there been difficulties? He answered that it was extremely difficult to get out of the camp as it was always being watched by soldiers at the front gate. Ultimately, it was a soldier in front of the camp who took the worker to the hospital. However, the hospital did not accept her, telling them to try another place. They went around all night. The woman was in labor, yet no one took her in. So, they came back to the camp first. Then, the soldier went to a hospital by himself. He urged the hospital to take her in at once, as she could not wait any longer. The baby was about to pop out. That hospital finally took her in.”

“Three days later, the worker could not leave the hospital because she had no money to pay them. If she stayed beyond 8 pm, she was going to be charged another night. I hurriedly drove to see her and took care of the expenses using money I collected from other people. I told her that this money was not mine, but belonged to people who wanted to help but could not be there. I also told her not to to lose heart, that people knew of her suffering. She thanked me”.

“I asked how she would get back to the camp. She said by taxi. I asked if she had any money.  She said no. It was as if she could only think one step ahead at a time. First, take a taxi. Worry about the fare later. It was impossible to think more than an hour or a day in advance. So, I gave her 200 baht, explaining that the money was from everyone as well”, said Nirat.

When the odds between living and dying are even, anything can happen.

It isn’t that they are not tired; the reason the team works so hard is a recognition that this is what human beings should do for one another. It is not just about basic necessities but also about showing that we don’t abandon each other.

“Having done it for sometime, I asked myself why. It was exhausting. I slept 3 – 4 hours a day. Of course, I worried about them as a fellow human beings.  But I also had to take care of myself as well to make sure I did not overdo it. I realised that poverty is a scary thing, that hunger is a scary thing”.

“And another question … say a camp has 500 workers but receives inadequate food and has infected people too. When people feel that there is an equal chance between life and death, they do things that might cross lines. It’s instinctive. 500 people in a camp might break out and cause riots. That is what I think. If it happens, I would not blame them. If I were one of them, knowing I did not have any choice but death, I would do it too. I would probably think, if I am going to die anyway, what different will it make if I am arrested or shot. And if I run to a hospital, maybe they would treat me.“

“Students who have studied history will know that the revolutions in France, Russia, and China were triggered by working class poverty and hunger. Now, we also have pandemic in the equation. In the long term, if there is a riot, who will take responsibility? Are there measures to handle it? The Thai state has never treated the lower class well.  If the state can not provide basic necessities, decent housing, food, medicines, or a life with some hope, so that people do not need to get out the camp, I don’t know what will happen”, said Nirat.

Not just the necessities, sustenance.

According to Nirat, most of the workers he talked to did ask for anything beyond basic necessities, such as food, medicines, diapers and milk for babies.

“I think they have grown used to be treated this way. They feel that they shouldn’t demand more than this, that they are not in the position to ask for anything. There is this self-deprecation, a mentality that says what they have received is “more than enough.”

“Now that a lot of people have donated, there is this concern about excess food going to waste.   To me, it would be a shame but it’s better to have too much than too little. The excess can be thrown out. What about those of us in the middle-class?  Have we never wasted food? If there were leftovers in the camps, it would be the first time in this country that workers experienced such public generosity. If there is some waste, it doesn’t f*cking matter. We shouldn’t worry about leftovers for now. It is better than not having enough.

“I ordered cookies from Chiang Mai. The cookies had cute flower shapes. I distributed them to people in the camps. I thought I might be criticised for giving out an unnecessary thing. But to heal, I feel that humans also need something to cheer them up. In such circumstances, to remain human, entertainment is also important.”

“I hoped that when they saw them, they would think, oh this is not something I expected.  They are pretty! Pretty things can help to cheer people up, at least for the 30 days they had to remain in the camps. I don’t know what other pretty things passed before their eyes, but I hoped that having these sweet, flower-shaped treats could really make them happy”.

“I shared this story with others, and they all got it. No one told me off. Along with basic necessities, everyone else also tried to send sweets, children’s stories, and stuff like that - things that make people appreciate beauty, art and their own self-worth. We tried to do this as much as possible”.

Labour issues must be one of the main agendas of political struggle

Nirat believes that one of his group’s biggest successes was raising public awareness of the poverty prevailing in workers’ camps located near their homes.

“Find your house on a map and draw a 2 km. a circle around it. Your circle will probably enclose 3 camps that you might never have known about, camps that have been there for years. There are camps in Thonglor or Ekkamai. It is very normal. It makes us realise that workers really are in our society, a part of our society.  They are a part of the social equation, a puzzling part.  People must be made aware that labourers work hard and earn very little.”

“We also helped people to see how badly the state was treating workers. They were not being treated as human beings. Just ask yourself a question: would you put your mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, whoever in this camp? If your answer is no, then the workers in the camp should not have to live like that either.”

Nirat believes that workers’ issues are missing from political debate and generally not discussed in mainstream society as widely as other matters. Even anti-government protests barely touched upon labour welfare and worker-related problems.

“Workers’ agenda should be included in the pro-democracy equation because they are the best  measure of related policy - welfare, public health, universal healthcare, minimum wage, pension, and free education.  As a group, labourers have few choices and are the first to benefit from these things. [Middle-class people] can use the 30-Baht health scheme but we also have money and can afford to go to a private hospital. And if we want to start a business, we can take out a loan from a bank. For workers though, they need to look elsewhere. You can measure whether a policy works [for the majority] or not right here”.

“I do not believe that everyone must be equally rich or poor, or that the working class must disappear from Thai society. That is not my personal stance. However, I do believe in human integrity, in the welfare state, and in mutual respect for human beings”.

One idea that Nirat and his friends have been discussing is to stage protests inside workers’ camps, as opposed to demonstrating at other symbolic place. They planned to move from camp to camp, criticising the government and its policies.

“I have been telling people in the camps that once the camps are open again and we  protest, they need to invite lots of people. I joked to a friend that police officers always move very quickly if ‘Penguin’ is at a protest. Journalists also show up fast too. So may be we could put Penguin in a car and bring him to our demonstration just to say “hello, how are you?”   It would be a great stunt. It would surely be a bang.”

Workers’ issues are relevant

Nirat told us that his network had no desire to operate forever and will stop as soon as they can. That, he believes, will be possible if everyone pressures the government to take responsibility for an issue that is rightly theirs to address.

“Frankly speaking, I don’t hope much anymore. We should stop hoping and start cursing! Become active! [After the 2014 coup] we hoped for seven years. Now, there is nothing to hope for anymore. We have lost the last bit of patience we had for the government. Mine actually ran out a long time ago. In fact, I never had any. If you have an opportunity, power, something to use as a weapon … if you’re in media, please be active, for your own sake. Everything is politics and politics affects everyone. Do you think workers’ camps are not politics? They are. If you think otherwise, try getting rid of the Burmese, Cambodian, and Laotian workers in our country. Have Thai people built those roads, condominiums, houses on Rama II Road? Have people with bachelor’s degrees? Don’t think that labour issues are irrelevant ,” Nirat said.

On 19 July 2021, “No One Cares” announced that it was “temporarily” closed to donations to improve its system.

“Please have patience. We believe that there will be many other instances when the government fails us and we have to take care of ourselves. Still, we will not take care of ourselves forever …join us in putting pressure on the government and responsible agencies to take action.”

First published on 20 July 2021 at https://prachatai.com/journal/2021/07/94060

Source: 
https://prachatai.com/journal/2021/07/94060

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