Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The Thai economy is being hit by the global recession and the impact of the political crisis and military rule. Thailand’s main export areas: the United States, the European Union and Japan, are either in crisis or experiencing sluggish growth. The Chinese economy is now experiencing a significant downturn. Thai seafood products are being boycotted because of the scandal of slave labour which the junta has no real will to solve. Trade agreements are being delayed because of a lack of democracy and tourism from the West is down because of a number of unsolved crimes against tourists and because of the general political climate. This decrease in Western tourists has been partly offset by an increase in Chinese tourists, another facet of the junta’s turn to China while being shunned by Western democratic countries.
The economic difficulties are having an impact on employment. The number of workers claiming unemployment benefit in February increased by 26% compared to the previous year. There has been a steady trickle of sackings. In January this year the electronics industry experienced a year on year increase in redundancies of 150%, a trend continuing from last year. Last October also saw a yearly increase in redundancies in the automotive industry of 143%. In the same month redundancies in the electrical goods industry and the jewellery industry increased by 68% and 43%, respectively.
Despite this situation, the spokesman for the Ministry of Labour, a junta lick-spittle, has claimed that Thailand’s level of unemployment is the “lowest in the world”. Teerapon Kunmuang, who works under the military general who runs the Ministry, proudly proclaimed that the unemployment figures for Thailand were “under 1%”, compared to 10.4% for France, 7.4% for the United States 5.3% for Germany, 4% for Japan, 6.8% for Indonesia and 2.8% for Singapore. This, he believed, was “proof” that the far-sighted and wise leadership of His Excellency Generalissimo Prayut had resulted in Thailand having the “highest level of economic happiness in the world”!!
This twaddle was repeated, word for word, by junta spokesman General Sansurn Keawpon. No doubt they were reading from the same script. Sansurn went on to say that His Excellency Prayut would like the people to know that the junta was doing everything it could to make people happy.
The fact of the matter is that Thai so-called unemployment figures cannot be compared to those quoted in most industrialised countries. Most industrialised countries compile figures from those claiming unemployment benefit. Yet the Thai figures are only for those claiming benefits from the national insurance scheme which covers a minority of workers. Thailand has no real welfare benefits and people who are sacked are forced to rely on poorly paid and insecure jobs. In fact, large numbers of workers, both in urban and rural areas, face a decline in the quality of employment when there are economic problems. Such declines in the quality of work are not reflected in unemployment figures. This is what happened in the 1996 economic crisis. It is the quality of employment and standards of living that are the real indicators of employment in Thailand, not some fictitious unemployment figures.
In addition to this, economist Pichit Likitkijsomboon has pointed out that Thailand’s terrible definition of those in work covers anyone aged 15 years up who has in the last 7 days performed at least 1 hour of paid employment or 1 hour of unpaid employment in their family’s business.
Given that the junta is extremist in its free-market dogma, which includes the king’s sufficiency economy ideology, it comes as no surprise that it opposes raising the minimum wage or using state money to help rice farmers, both of which might help to bring some relief and stimulate the internal economy in the short term.
What is worse is that in an effort to attract foreign investment, the junta has used its dictatorial powers to make Environmental Impact Assessments on large scale projects completely meaningless. Ironically this has disappointed some environmental NGOs which were supportive of the coup and military rule.