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Field Notes

Witnessing Thai Labor in Protest

“Be careful! Don’t do something stupid so, you’ll not get arrested,” warned a Thai friend
after I told him that I might join a workers’ rally on the next day, March 8 in
commemorating the International Women’s Day. He added by informing me that a day
earlier, on March 6, the police visited the office of Prachatai, an online daily newspaper,
with an arrest warrant for its coordinator on allegation of violating the Computer Crime
Act. Noting that the charge could easily changed into an accusation of lèse-majesté laws.
He expressed apprehension that if I join the rally, the authorities can expel me, a
foreigner, from the country -- which happened a month ago to an Australian novelist.

I ignored his warnings and invited other foreign friends to the workers’ rally, to join in as
part of our “localization” process. To my surprise, I received a completely different
reaction. A Japanese feminist friend who had stayed for almost two years in Bangkok,
replied with a bored look that “Demonstration is our staple, we can get across it everyday
– no excitement anymore.” When I challenged her feminism, she retorted: “There are
many other important things to do in advancing women workers’ rights in Thailand than
just joining a rally.” I could not get myself to disagree with her, having learned a similar
lesson in my home country, Indonesia, on how the public developed contrary opinions
regarding daily mass demonstrations in Jakarta since the fall of Soeharto in 1998.

The March 8 Demonstration

The March 8 demonstration provided a window to the dynamics of the Thai labor
movement. There were at least three groups of workers that organized their own
demonstrations independent of each other. Each group had its own slogans, banners,
songs, demands and political agenda to uphold.
Picture 1. Self-documenting: Members of state enterprise unions are posing a picture of
the rally.

The largest group consisted of union members affiliated with the State Enterprises
Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC). Easily recognized by their orange t-shirts and
triangular boy scouts-like scarves, they came to the meeting point - in front of the UN
building at Rachadamnoen, by buses at around 8.30 am. Joining the SERC were the
unions and labor groups affiliated with the Public Service International (PSI), the
International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Federation of
Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM). The Bangkok-based
Women Workers’ Unity Group (WWUG) and the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee
(TLSC) were also part of the group, although the close have ties with the Friedrich Ebert
Stiftung (FES) Bangkok office and other foreign funding organizations. This large group
prepared banners in English that demanded the ratification of International Labor
Organization’s Core Conventions Nos. 87 and 98 on the Freedom of Association. With
their banners held high, the group marched along Rachadamnoen road up to the
Parliament House, where they stopped and occupied the road.

As the rally was a conceived as a “normal” safe demonstration, workers were on ease,
sharing laughter and jokes among their brothers and sisters. More like a routine thing, the
rally was neatly organized, realizing no armed-police or tear gas attack would come on
their way – workers were “enjoying” the rally as a fun thing to do on their Sunday break,
a get together with friends.
Picture 2. “Sunday picnic”: In a relatively safe and peace conditions like this one,
demonstrations provide workers a social arena for small chit-chats, getting know each
others and span network of friends (some end up as lovers, too).

After about 2 hours, the crowd was visited by Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva who gave a 20
minute speech with most of the workers taking photos of the PM with their digital

Picture 3. Getting Updated: “Joining this rally, I can see him (the PM) with my own eyes
– normally only on TV”, said a worker
Picture 4. Sharing the fun: workers are taking mobile-pictures and spreading the news of
seeing the PM.

Another group consisted of small independent local unions from outside of Bangkok (for
example, about thirty female workers came from Saraburi province by renting a 5,000
bath bus which they shared the cost). Their main concern was about the vulnerable
conditions of contract and sub-contract workers, and their lack of the legal protection.
Some of these workers were having their first time to visit Bangkok – dressed up with
tight pants, high heels and fashionable cosmetics; demonstration is more like providing a
chance for them to have a trip. Knowing in a big-mass yet fragmented demonstration like
this one their voices would likely not get any attention, they planned this “trip” in a
similar fashion like a high-school study tour. It was meant to experience Bangkok, the big
city and its important buildings they have never seen before, yet to learn something of it,
and after the demonstration was over in 2 hours, they visited the office of Prachatai to
get the latest news about the arrest.
During the demonstration, this small group was joined in by a college student group
whose members distributed statement demanding lèse-majesté laws to be repealed. The
students were also selling the newsletters of the People Coalition Party (PCP) - an
opposition party whose founder, Giles Jiles Ungpakorn, was forced to leave the country
to avoid being charged for lèse-majesté. Some of the group members made strong
speeches after knowing that the PM only visited the other group but not theirs. Their
speeches were mostly on the political issues, less about the workers’. Radical they might
be, yet with little contact to the workers’ group to take the workers’ actual economic
anxieties as the foundation of their political dissents to instigate the mass. They
performed an art of funeral procession of a stuffed doll in shape of a corpse with the
PM’s printed face on it and once finished, threw it inside the Government House.

A smaller group was a labor union of the Metropolitan Electricity Authority with about
20 workers went demonstrating in front of the Government House. They had their own
agenda and demands separated from the SERC group. This union had been fighting
against the privatization of the company since 2003. Leaders of this union had managed
to get inside the Government House for delivering a letter concerning their own case.

Picture 5. Taking a rest: A groups of demonstrating workers along the Phitsanulok road
nearby the Government House.

Facing New Challenges

The fraction inside the Thai labor movement which spans in line to political linkages,
unfortunately, has weaken the power of the labor unions in providing fast responses to
their rank-and-files’ actual problems. Under the conditions created by the global
economic forces, workers everywhere are facing new challenges and in a serious need of
a new kind of organization that can maintain their democratic control over how the
economy should be structured. In the context of global economic downturn, the
flexibilization of work- arrangement into outsourcing and contract-based, and
informalization of the Thai economy today, low wage workers are unable to bargain
collectively against degrading working conditions as union leaders are drawn inside the
political rent-seeking game instead of advancing ways to foster their members’ economic
interests. Although those in their privileged status as a permanent worker realized how
the economic situations have created hardship they shared together with their brothers
and sisters who are in contract and subcontract employment status, given the limited
space they have, only sporadic and time-bound contributions are the best they can
manage.1 To add to this tip of the iceberg, is the problems of the Burmese migrant
workers which have been long ignored by the labor unions.

Jafar Suryomenggolo
Graduate Student of ASAFAS, Kyoto University.
March 29, 2009.

Interview with Araya Kaewpradap, Women Committee of the Labor Union of Government
Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO), Bangkok.