Shrunken Labor

Ideas and Issues International

P1010005 (1)Bangkok We started the Organizers’ Forum meeting with our old friend, Rudy Porter, director of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center for Thailand and this area of Asia.  Brother Porter had been a godsend years ago when we were in Jakarta, so we had been delighted to find him posted in Bangkok now.  Unfortunately, his report on the situation for organized workers in unions in Thailand was depressing.

He started his briefing with some fascinating points on how employment statistics are in Thailand.  Every bit of informal work is counted.  Furthermore there is no such thing as dropping “discouraged” workers off the roles, which we do in the States.  The Thai had a number of more than 500,000 that did not look for work in the reporting period.  The bottom line produces a figure of 1.5% unemployed, meaning people who did absolutely not one lick of work in the month.  I’m not sure how this drives public policy, but it was fascinating.  Rudy pointed us to the fact that of 37 M workers about 2-3 M were in hospitality and more than 5M were in manufacturing.  The hope for the future of organized labor, Rudy believes is in manufacturing.

It’s a small light on a bleak horizon.  Union density is hardly 1.5%.  There are hardly 500,000 union members of the 37M workers.  Public employees do not yet have the right to organize, though Rudy reported there is progress in this area.  Most of the heavy manufacturing from foreign sources is unionized with about 1/3 of the first level of supply and only about 5% of the 3rd level of suppliers from Thai companies, where the fight is vicious.

The law offers a host of impediments.  Part of the problem lies in a tripartite labor court system that is for sale and easily manipulated and often even when unions prevail only honors back wages and not reinstatement.  More fundamentally anything above the local union is starved of any resources so there is no meaningful organizing capacity at the national level.  There is bizarre rule that allows only a maximum of two “advisors” in collective bargaining that also permanently tilts the table to management, though it has build a strong rank-and-file where the union is able to survive.

One delegate, Orell Fitzimmons from SEIU Local 100, asked if there was any hope, and Rudy said he was counting on manufacturing to lead the way and hopefully spread the gospel.

It still seemed in the by and by.