By Michael Connors
Thumthong Phoirit recently visited Australia as part of the Thai delegation to the Australian Asia Worker Links conference, Workers Can Change the World. She told her story to a meeting of the Victorian Trades Hall Council on September 29.
A child of landless peasants, Thumthong left the poverty-stricken north-east to work in Bangkok as a construction worker at the age of 13. For two years she hauled sand bags for cement mixing. On turning 15, she took a job at the Kader toy factory, at last out of the harsh sun.
The atmosphere was no less oppressive. She now faced bullying security guards, who would lock doors to ensure workers completed compulsory overtime. The heat sweated the life out of her. But at least the wages met the minimum requirements, a few dollars a day.
Thumthong was told of a fire at the factory, before her time, when a more than a dozen workers had been burnt alive. No-one could imagine how many lives the next fire would claim.
As Thumthong was working on the third floor on May 10, she heard an explosion. She was then engulfed by a storm of blackened workers escaping flames and suffocation. Security guards told them not to panic and locked all escape routes — afraid the workers would steal toys. Trapped, people leaped to their deaths.
Through a translator, Thumthong told the VTHC, "I thought of God, the Lord Buddha, and then my parents and I closed my eyes and jumped". She survived only because she landed on those who had jumped first and had died.
The fire left 188 dead, 469 seriously injured and 3000 unemployed. No managers or owners have been brought to trial, although a store person, whose cigarette was alleged to have caused the explosion, was charged. His wife said, in the local press, that he did not smoke.
The Kader Company, based in Hong Kong, disclaimed responsibility for the management of its plants in Thailand. For 15 days Thai delegates, including Kader workers, unionists and NGOs, staged a sit-in near Kader's head office in Hong Kong. Local workers were sympathetic. A boycott was established which brought the company to the bargaining table. Although the final compensation pay-outs were less than demanded, they were significantly higher than legally required.
At 18 years old, Thumthong is now about to start working for a new organisation, partly sponsored by Community Aid Abroad, advocating for victims of industrial disasters.
For workers and peasants, the rapid industrialisation of Thailand, through both domestic and international capital, brings urgent challenges.
Thailand's labour movement is badly fragmented. Although there are eight labour councils and more than 700 unions, only 150,000 workers are unionised. Mostly, unions are compliant and undemocratic. In February 1991 the military government banned unions in the state sector, traditionally the most militant section. The elected government of Chuan Leekpai has so far maintained the ban.
Nevertheless, strikes have become more frequent. The new industrial estates, largely a result of foreign investment, brought thousands of workers together, creating the conditions for strong industrial unionism. The great rural migrations to Bangkok are now nearly a generation old. People have come to see working in the great city as a lifetime enterprise rather than a seasonal job. The new permanence of the labour force is likely to lead to greater unionism.
The year-old elected government has passed labour laws that grant workers some rights, but at the cost of independence. Union leaders can be sacked by the government. Ballots have to be held before industrial action. State enterprise workers can no longer strike, and the law prohibits the involvement of any "third party" in an industrial dispute, clearly an attack on solidarity.
But even in this climate victories can be won. In May, unionists and activists succeeded in securing 45 days' paid maternity leave for workers.