Respect labour rights to avert sanction

Yongyuth Chalamwong
Ratree Prasomsup

Apart from the baht getting stronger, Thai exports will suffer another big blow when the United States cuts Thailand’s duty-free trade privileges due to the poor protection of workers’ rights.From April, the suspension of trade privileges for Thailand under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) will affect a wide range of products and cost the country US$1.3 billion or 39.3 billion baht.

If it wants to regain its GSP privilege, Thailand has no choice but to prove to the international community that it is committed to boosting workers’ rights.

This can be done easily. All it has to do is stop resisting the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, which recognise workers’ freedom of association and the right to organise as well as collective bargaining. Known as ILO Conventions No.87 and No.98, they are the international standards on labour rights.

The government, however, is unwilling to give migrant workers these rights, resulting in widespread labour exploitation which has triggered international condemnation and boycott threats of Thai exports.

Freedom of association and the right to organise and collective bargaining are the very basic of workers’ rights and Thailand cannot deny workers’ these rights if it wants to be part of the international market.

To be fair, Thailand has since 2014, making an effort to improve labour laws to better protect Thai and migrant workers, as well as tackle human trafficking. And the efforts have paid off.

Thailand has risen in ranking in the US Trafficking in Persons Report and the European Union’s Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing watch list.

Still, a big question remains: If Thailand is so committed to improving workers’ rights, why is it still refusing to ratify the ILO conventions that allow workers the right to set up labour unions for collective bargaining?

Labour activists have been campaigning for the ratification of these conventions for two decades now, but to no avail.

Now, Thai exports are facing obstacles in the US due to this stubbornness of policymakers. The US has made it clear that the lack of international standards is the reason for its GSP cuts.

Thailand cannot afford to dawdle any longer. These two conventions need to be ratified quickly for three key benefits.

Firstly, the ratification will lift basic workers’ rights in Thailand to international standards. Refusal to ratify the ILO’s No.87 and No.98 conventions has weakened workers’ efforts to organise.

For starters, Thailand has very few labour unions due to lack of state support.

There are over 17 million people in the formal labour force, yet there are only 1,400 labour unions with only 610,000 members.

Meanwhile, there are 21.7 million workers in the informal sector or half of the entire labour force. Yet they have no basic rights. In addition, labour union leaders are fighting a tough battle for migrant workers’ rights. Due to the current state of things, migrant workers face difficulties accessing their rights, bargaining for better conditions or joining the social security system.

This lack of bargaining power has been leading to low wages, poor conditions and substandard welfare benefits. The workers end up working long hard hours in order to earn enough to support their families.

This goes against the principles of freedom of association and the right to organise and collective bargaining under the ILO Conventions No.87 and No.98.

Secondly, ratification of these conventions will encourage state authorities to streamline the registration and documentation of migrant workers and make it more efficient so they can organise themselves to form labour unions.

Actually, the government has already taken steps in this direction. Over the past three years, the government has shown a firm commitment to streamlining the registration and issuance of visa and work permits. As a result, the proportion of legal migrant workers has risen and is now a lot higher than the number of undocumented workers.

According to the Foreign Workers Administration Office, there were 3,222,150 foreign workers as of September 2019. Of them, 1,747,723 have passports and registration papers, while the rest have temporary permits. This is higher than the 1,626,235 registered migrants in 2016.

The next logical move, therefore, would be to ratify the ILO conventions so migrant workers’ rights and benefits can be strengthened. After all, if the state brings in migrant workers to help boost productivity, it should also respect their rights and equality.

Thirdly, ratification also provides long-term benefits to employers and the country as a whole. For employers, ratification will help ease labour discontent, which can grow significantly without timely intervention.

Thai society’s negative views toward migrant workers is also leaving little room for rational negotiations on an equal basis. The ratification of these conventions will force Thailand to implement policies and measures that make all parties comply with international standards of labour rights. With new standards in rights, conflicts can be avoided, which will in turn promote the environment for investment.

As for the country, ratification of these conventions will boost Thailand’s image in the international community and eventually remove it from the ILO’s list of countries that are still against workers’ rights to set up labour unions.

At present, the question of labour rights has become one of the important criteria in international trade — and in trade boycotts. Complying with the global trade requirements, however, will strengthen the country’s competitiveness in the world market. More importantly, the ratification of the conventions will push Thailand toward a fairer society and bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.

Some might still think that granting foreign workers more rights will affect national security. The fact is that they are only demanding the rights enshrined in Thailand’s constitution. They need to stand up for their rights because they are facing injustice, and this injustice undermines national security. Also, Thailand’s national security apparatus is very strong and this fear of migrant workers’ is ungrounded.

Therefore, the government should quickly send out a signal to the international community that it is ready to ratify the ILO Convention No.98 or the Right to Organise and Collective Convention, and the ILO Convention No.87, to avoid further economic damages.

Thailand’s refusal to endorse the international standards of workers’ rights has hit the country hard at a time when labour rights and equality have become the global norm.

United States cutting GSP for 573 Thai products because of poor labour rights standards is hurting the country’s trade competitiveness, raising the cost of export investments, adversely affecting the national economy and heightening public discontent.

This is a real national security threat. And this threat is coming not from the migrant workers, but from our own failure to recognise them as equal human beings. We have walked the wrong path. Let’s right this wrong and begin the year by ratifying these two important ILO conventions to recognise the freedoms and rights of migrant workers.

 Yongyuth Chalamwong is a research director for Human Resource Policy, while Ratree Prasomsup is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published: Bangkok post on January 08, 2020