Thailand: Thaksin And Labour Reform


Dr Andrew Brown

Prior to its election to government in January 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party promised a range of labour relations reforms. For workers, after years of struggling to have a plethora of outstanding issues addressed, the proposed reforms were seen to be long overdue. Some economic commentators, as well as some sections of business, also see labour reforms as necessary. Raising the productivity of labour is particularly perceived as a prerequisite for ensuring success in an increasingly competitive, globalised economic market.

However, after some eighteen months into its first term in office, Thaksin’s government has been slow to make good on its pre-election promises. To be sure, some increased resources have been directed toward labour skilling and training. Nonetheless, broader education reforms, seen as being fundamental to creating improved human resources, have been slow to materialise. The one area that has attracted some government attention is that of illegal labour. Here Thaksin’s administration moved quite quickly in drawing up a new set of legal guidelines to govern the hiring and employment of foreign workers, mostly Lao, Burmese and Cambodians. This policy appears to have been formulated in response to employer demands to use foreigners when local workers are unwilling to take dirty, dangerous or difficult jobs. But this new system of registering foreign labourers, to whom minimum wage rates do not apply, does nothing to address the longer-term problems of raising labour productivity.

Better training and education are not all that is required. Thaskin’s government also confronts the task of reforming the industrial relations system. In place since the mid-1970s, the present system has in practice secured employer rather than labour interests during episodes of industrial disputation and collective bargaining. Indeed, despite the emphasis given to participation, equity and the creation of harmonious relations between employers, government and labour, the system has resulted in the exclusion of workers from decision-making and workplace reform. But experiences elsewhere have shown that workers and their unions can play key roles in contributing to industrial peace and increased productivity. For this to occur in Thailand, the culture of keeping labour weak, disorganised and isolated will need to be substantially changed.

Here again the signs have not been promising. Since the economic crisis, employers and their legal representatives have deployed a range of strategies to combat union growth and strength in collective bargaining processes. Through its policy inaction in the area of industrial relations reform, the Thaksin government has demonstrated support for employers and their post-crisis offensive against worker organisation.

WATCHPOINT: The issue of increasing the productivity of Thai labour remains to be addressed.


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