When a Day’s Pay is Half of Your Child’s Formula Milk
“Hard-working farmers are the backbone of the nation.” This is the beginning of the song ‘life of a farmer’ written to laud the agricultural profession, especially the rice farmers who produce for people in the country, and export it to other nations as well. But a conundrum remains, why such an essential and skilled occupation still makes such a low living wage? The family of a rice farmer earns on an average 210,139 baht a year or around 17,511 baht a month (the number includes income from other sources as well.) And to emphasize, the income is that of the whole family which means they are living under limited conditions. This results in farmers migrating to the capital for more money, and more chances in life.
Bathed in sweat and tears, toiling with work and the unknowing
On 28th June 2021, the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) ordered the construction camps around Bangkok and its vicinity to shut down with the intention to control the pandemic. The order was effective from 30 June onwards. A larger number of construction workers decided to travel back home while some others could not with different reasons: the lack of money, getting sealed off by the military, or migrant worker status. Considering the Labor Protection Act B.E. 2541, there was not much to be concerned about. The act assuredly indicates that the employer must be responsible to the employee welfare such as providing clean drinking water, medicines, and compensation to which the government is accounted for. The construction workers did not need to worry. But reality struck back when necessities were not even available for the workers stuck across the camp sites. They did not have enough food, water, and health care. The employers and the government neglected these human beings as if they were not ones. The workers did not demand anything, they did not know how, they did not know who to contact when they were behind the galvanized walls.
Bathed in sweat and tears, toiling with work and the unknowing: A lyrics from the song Life Drama [ละครชีวิต] by Mike Piromphorn a popular folk singer among the laborers. His lyrics often describe the hardship of migrant workers and give them support.
the Labor Protection Act B.E. 2541: https://www.labour.go.th/index.php/hm7/73-2562-01-04-06-01-50
The Overseas Chinese took up the role of ‘coolies’ who worked in the capital city from the reign of King Rama V until the end of World War two when a larger number of them managed to move up their social status. New faces of laborers became the faces of the ‘Isaan People’ who migrated to work in the city temporarily after the rice farming season was done. The expansion of the capital city and the restriction of foreign migrant workers at the time resulted in an increase of people from the Northeast who came to work as unskilled laborers (in reality every job is a skilled job.) They traded their sweat and labor for a small amount of money, and people remember them as the uneducated country people. For decades, Isaan people (or people from other similar areas as well) struggled with life, until they were eventually assimilated into the city culture.
New faces of laborers became the faces of the ‘Isaan People’ who migrated to work in the city temporarily: https://www.silpa-mag.com/history/article_69898
‘Welfare state’ becomes a topic of discussion once again, with the public attempting to understand its meaning. The labor unions have fought for welfare, they fought for 300 baht minimum wage, they fought for maternity leave, but universal welfare has not been achieved and the authorities do not seem to care. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a welfare state such as the need for effective vaccines to create herd immunity and for the situations to get better.
‘Welfare state’ is thus a powerful concept which believes that everyone is entitled to welfare and basic rights such as education, health care, transportation, and safety. It will ensure the well-being of the citizens, and people will not have to invest in basic necessities such as expensive tuition fees, health insurance, or cars. Imagine that the nation can take care of citizens this way, people living far away will not have to migrate to the city because they can access welfare from anywhere.
Living in a small rental room to save up, but even a one thousand banknote takes months
Female migrant workers in a construction site have to work 13-14 hours a day but they get only 190-300 for that. This is the actual payment they get, even before the COVID situation. Some migrant workers accept this because they still get paid better than in their home country. But should human beings work with this low wages and rarely any welfare to support?
Living in a small rental room to save up, but even a one thousand banknote takes months: Part of the lyrics from “Draw the Dream on the Walls” [เขียนฝันไว้ข้างฝา] by Ratchanok Seelopan. The song is about a woman who left her home to come work in the city, and to support her mom and her family.
According to the International Labour Organization (2018), there are 772,720 migrant workers in Thailand and 557,724 are in the construction sector. The number has not included unregistered migrant workers, which could be as high as millions. Migrant workers registration is a hurdle created by the Thai bureaucratic system. Those with passports have to pay 7,500 baht to get a ‘pink card’ which allows them to work in Thailand. Sometimes the employers pay for this, sometimes not, and they have to pay for themselves. Several employers choose to not register the migrant workers since it is a ‘waste’ of their time and if they hire an agent to proceed with the registration for them, they have to pay 2,500 baht for a migrant worker. Unsurprisingly, some migrant workers live in Thailand illegally, and do not receive any welfare.
Those with passports have to pay 7,500 baht : https://apwld.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018_BOOM-FPAR-MAP-Country-briefer-TH.pdf
Registered migrant workers have to stay in Thailand for at least six months to get the same welfare as the Thai workers such as social security or maternity leave. And they are rarely allowed welfare. Employers tend to find ways to fire pregnant women, some pregnant women decided to leave because of the pressure.
From the registration, there are around 200,000 female migrant workers in the industry sector. This accounts for 40 percent, the highest among 49 developing countries. In England, there is only one percent of women in the construction sector. Scopes of work of the female laborers in Thailand are usually ‘hauling and carrying’ the materials. While the more skilled work goes to the men. Even though some women have developed their skills, they do not get the same payment as the men. Not only in the construction sector, some migrant workers get only 3,000 – 6,000 baht a month, they stay in the accommodation designated by the employer, save up and send money back home to the families in their home countries.
Then there came the construction site shutdown order.
If you are in pain, do not take a step back
Seven days after the construction sites were shut down, voices and cries of the workers reverberated. The situations were critical. ‘No One Cares Bangkok’ was then formed by a group of volunteers to bring food and necessities to the construction camps. The workers did not have food to eat, water to drink, not even formula milk and children’s necessities. They could not go out, and if they could, they cannot afford to buy necessities anymore because of the shutdown.
If you are in pain, do not take a step back: From the song “For Mom, I Will Not Give Up” by Siriporn Ampaipong which tells a story of migrant workers in the capital city, with her mom as a source of strength
The volunteers found that a baby’s formula milk and diapers are costly compared to a worker’s income. The formula milk costs around 1,000 baht every 7-14 days. While the mother’s income is only the highest at 300 baht a day. As clear as day, the authorities do not care about children who are future workers. Some requests from the mothers are disheartening, some ask for “the milk for my baby first, food can be later.” Because children cannot just eat like adults do. In some construction camps, the volunteers even found a one-day old baby, meaning that they were born during the shutdown.
Female migrant workers often work as their husbands’ assistants. Some employers accept female workers because they simply want the husbands to work for them. Women in the construction camps need husbands for their own safety, since most of the workers are men and they enjoy their after-work drinking culture. Single women in a construction site is a rare sight since that status subjects her to sexual harassment. Still, married women do not enjoy safety. From interviews with children in the camps, it was found that fathers and men often physically and verbally abuse the women. This causes anxiety among the children. The bathrooms in the camp are also shared, with no sense of safety and privacy.
No One Cares Bangkok received requests to buy birth control pills along with other necessities. From a conversation with a female migrant worker, they found that men in the camp are not responsible for birth control, meaning that they do not buy condoms because they are expensive (but contraceptive pills are, too.) Birth control becomes the responsibility of the women who live under patriarchal society and are pressured to do the chores besides their work, child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning. When a female worker is pregnant, she enters the cycle of getting fired, and struggling to make ends meet on her own. Some newborns do not have a birth certificate since the migrant mothers do not know how to access that; as a result, the baby does not receive welfare, education, health care, nor safety.
Who built these skyscrapers, and these roads you walk on?
If one does a calculation: female migrant worker + unregistered + pregnancy + child rearing, one will certainly find that these women are the marginalized of the industry. Some employers do not pay them, thinking that they are not beneficial anymore. In 2017, the Thai government implemented the Foreigners’ Working Management Emergency Decree to punish employers who do not register their migrant workers. This resulted in the employers firing the migrant workers without giving them the final sum of the payment. Around 60,000 workers migrated back home, most back to Myanmar. Among the numbers, there might have been a mother carrying her baby, with the fear of getting arrested, back home. The incident evidently shows that there is not a safety net nor welfare, to support the migrants even though they are part and parcel of Thailand’s economy.
No One Cares Bangkok mentioned that when calling to ask the workers about help they would like, the receiver often responds with ‘anything’ ‘any food’ or ‘anything you could help’ with the gesture of not wanting to ask for more. They might not feel that they have the right to demand because people tend to not listen. Often than not, they are objects of merit, where the ‘charitable persons’ come to take photos with, and part way.
We do not even have to mention basic rights, we need to take a step back to talk about human decency that they are entitled to. The skyscrapers, the roads, the buildings, the bridges cannot simply be built by the Thais. Once we realize that migrant workers are part and parcel of this country’s development, they will have dignity in life, and the welfare they are well-deserved.
Who built these skyscrapers, and these roads you walk on?: From the song ‘Those Who Are Behind” by Mike Piromphorn, the song is about a man who came to work in the city, with his low level of education for a better life.