Tag Archives: Trade Unionists

Thailand needs a socialist party of the working class

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In a recent article in Thai on the Turn Left Thailand blog site [https://turnleftthai.wordpress.com/], I argued that trade union activists should not put their faith in business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party. This is because it is a middle class party in the interests of business. This is despite the fact that it has a clear anti-dictatorship position, some abstract statement about building a welfare state, and has been busy trying to recruit some trade union activists to create an image that it supports workers. In reality, the party has no commitment to raising the minimum wage to significant levels which would eradicate poverty, or to scrap and rewrite labour laws which restrict the right to strike and build free trade unions. What is really needed, I argued, is a party of the working class. [See the importance of class in Thailand here: https://bit.ly/2qG1Ytl ].

The article received much interest and some criticism. A former high paid finance worker who claims to be a “Marxist” dismissed the idea of a workers’ party by saying that the working class had shrunk and was no longer a majority in society. The opposite is actually true, with formerly middle class professions like teaching and nursing seeing unionisation. There have also been active trade unions among white collar bank workers for some time. Unionisation levels may be low, but that is a political problem rather than a structural one. Part of the political problem is a lack of a socialist party of the working class. Among the most radical sections of the Thai labour movement, “revolutionary syndicalism” is a dominant current, although very small in proportion to the whole of the movement. These anti-capitalist, anti-junta, activists do not see the need to build a party, but see their trade unions as the main vehicle for struggle.

Some Maoists from the defunct Communist Party of Thailand have also criticised my article, claiming that workers need to build cross-class alliances with capitalists because “the time is not right for a workers’ party”. For them, the time will never be right!

Another criticism of my article came from a former trade union activist who stated that Thai workers do not have a culture of political struggle. She accused me of not knowing Thai workers. Both statements are untrue.

The “cultural” argument has a long right-wing tradition among commentators. Western conservative academics used to pontificate about a Thai “lack of political culture”, ignoring repeated cycles of mass struggle for democracy. Even today this finds an echo among NGO activists in the Commoners’ Party. It fits nicely with the patronising attitude that claimed that the rural poor who voted for Taksin were ill-educated, ignorant of politics and sold their votes. It also seems to have an echo among demoralised former labour activists.

In the late 1990’s I was involved in re-establishing a Marxist and Trotskyist current among small groups of students and trade unionists. We managed to establish a presence for about ten years. But our organisation was not strong enough to withstand the repression and use of lèse-majesté following the two recent military coups. Never the less, interest in Marxism and Socialism, especially among some young people, has been on the rise recently, with some left-wing seminars being held. Unfortunately, serious party builders are yet to emerge.

To build a socialist party of the working class today, activists need to refrain from being mesmerised by elections, especially those held under the rules set down by the junta. There is no need to create a registered party to fight elections right now. What is needed is to build an activist party among workers with the involvement of young students. The activists need to train and educate themselves in theory while engaging in day to day struggles alongside other social activists. People need to learn from the successes of the illegal Communist Party of Thailand while rejecting its Stalinism and Maoism. The CPT had many activists who recruited students and workers in the early days.

One of the most important tasks is for a socialist party to bring together a big picture political analysis to counter single issue lobbying which has long been promoted by the NGOs and the trade unions.

History tells us that without a socialist party of the working class it is difficult to make serious advances on building a welfare state, reducing inequality and expanding the democratic space by promoting participatory democracy in society.

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Future Forward Party fails to move beyond the mainstream

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

All Thai mainstream political parties in the past have had rich businessmen or military generals heading the party. Many have retired military officers in leadership positions. At the general meeting of the Future Forward Party a few weeks ago, the executive committee members of the party were elected.

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Not surprisingly, business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was elected as leader of the party and former academic Piyabutr Saengkanokkul was elected as secretary general. Among the executive committee were two other business people, a number of academics and a couple of NGO activists. One of the NGO activists specialises in labour issues. Most of these people have a track record of holding anti-dictatorship views. However, without a serious attempt to build a pro-democracy social movement outside parliament, all talk about scrapping the military constitution and erasing the legacy of dictatorship will just be hot air.

What is worrying is that one of the deputy leaders of the party is retired Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo, a former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council. He was removed from office by Generalissimo Prayut after the coup. But his association with the NSC is worrying because all former governments, especially military juntas, have always stressed “national security” over freedom and democracy.

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Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo wrote a recent column in a national newspaper about Patani. He said that what was needed was a softer approach by the state, without human rights abuses. But he never mentioned the right to self-determination for the people of Patani, a need to prosecute state officials who had ordered the murdering of Malay Muslims, nor the fact that negotiations between the state and freedom fighters ought to be a civilian matter, rather than being led by the military. His position is the same as the “doves” in the Thai military. It affirms that the Thai nation state cannot grant independence or be divided. This is different from initial comments from a Future Forward Party member some months ago about the need for autonomy in Patani.

From the makeup of the executive committee, one can see that this is no “grass roots” party of the 99% as there are no real representatives of organised labour or small farmers. It is a middle-class party for the middle-class which supports the free-market.

To be fair to them, none of the party activists apart from Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, ever claimed that the party would be a party of the working class and small farmers, who make up the vast majority of the population. But Piyabutr and another academic made erratic claims comparing the party to the new left parties in Europe.

Of course, we can only guess what the party’s policies will be from the makeup of the executive committee and from what some of the leaders have said. However, if the party’s manifesto does not include the need for a welfare state funded through high taxes on the rich and businesses, a commitment to repeal the lèse majesté law, a commitment to the right to choose to have free and safe abortions, a commitment to raise the minimum wage according to demands of the unions and to rewrite the labour laws which restrict the actions of unions, and a commitment to self-determination for the people of Patani, the party will merely be a mainstream, neo-liberal, anti-military party.

There is still an urgent need to build a left-wing political party of the working class and peasantry.

 

The militarisation of labour relations

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

As we approach the end of 2017 we are seeing another aspect of the militarisation of Thai society.

The end of the year is traditionally a time when workers look forward to bonuses, which are essential additions to their low wages. Most workers rely on these bonuses as an integral part of their annual wages in order to survive. Since the military overthrew the Yingluk government in 2014, the junta have been forcing down wages by refusing to adequately increase the minimum wage. The Yingluk government had previously made a significant increase to the minimum wage rate, even though this was still not enough to provide ordinary working people with a decent living. The military junta has said that it will carry on the policy of decreeing different minimum wage levels for different provinces, something which is designed to keep down wages in the interests of the bosses.

Immediately after Prayut’s coup, and also after the 2006 coup, military personnel were stationed outside key factories which had strong trade union organisations with reputations for pro-democracy struggles.

Lately there have been two disputes over bonus payments, resulting in mass meetings and factory gate protests. The first one was at Fujikura Electronics factories in a number of different provinces. The second dispute was at Triumph underwear factories. Triumph has a long history of strong trade union activity, although in recent times the union has been weakened by the victimisation of key activists. [See http://bit.ly/2kPNX9E ]

In the case of Triumph, the employers broke an agreement with the union to pay the end of year bonus.

What is noticeable is that the military have been involved in both disputes, blatantly intervening under the age-old excuse of “national security”. Of course the presence of security forces was not to ensure that the employers kept to their agreements or treated their employees fairly.

At Triumph the military were photographed sitting in on negotiations between the union and the employees.

In addition to this, the present minister of Labour is a military general.

Minister of Labour

All this has echoes of the militarisation of labour relations under the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. This was carried out under the “dwifungsi” doctrine of the military having a double function of defending the country and also intervening in politics and society.

Vedi Hadiz, wrote in his book, “Workers and the state in new order Indonesia”, that the involvement of security organisations in labour matters was legitimised by the characterisation of industrial disputes as a threat to national stability. This military intervention in labour disputes was supported by law under the Suharto dictatorship. Local military dominated committees in each region were created in order to control labour disputes and the workings of trade unions. The Minister of Manpower was often also a military officer.

The situation in Suharto’s Indonesia was worse than what we currently see in Thailand under Prayut’s dictatorship, but there are significant similarities in terms of the militarisation of society. I have also posted an article on this site comparing the Thai “National Strategy” with the use of Pancasila under Suharto. [See http://bit.ly/2l63Z1I ]. Pancasila was also used as an enforced “guide” to labour relations in order to weaken trade union struggles.

If we do not put a stop to this creeping militarisation of Thai society, there can never be freedom and democracy.

What the Rohingya slave labour and Ko Tao scandals reveal

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Both the Rohingya slave labour scandal, exposed by the Guardian newspaper and other media, and the police handling of the brutal murders of two British tourists on Ko Tao, reveal a very nasty side of Thai society.

While large numbers of decent Thai people would condemn the human trafficking, systematic rapes, imprisonment on large cargo ships and the eventual enslavement in the fishing industry, of hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Burma, much more needs to be done. Thai organisations and political groups should be mobilising and campaigning over this issue and trade unions should be making a stand against the shocking labour conditions in the fishing industry.

There might be sympathy in Thai society for those at the sharp end of human trafficking, when it is exposed in the media, but deep-rooted racism and nationalism, which infects most Thais, means that when the issue of welcoming the refugees and re-settling them in normal Thai society is raised, there is widespread hostility. This spills over into the blatant disregard for the plight of migrant workers from neighbouring countries. When not being trafficked, they are abused, beaten and robbed of their wages by employers and members of the security forces. Government posters reinforce derogatory views about migrants, accusing them of crimes and of carrying diseases. Ordinary Thais routinely use racist terms like “Kak”, “Yuan”, “Farang”, “Aye-Meud” (Darky) etc. to refer to people of other ethnicities.

This poisonous racism is responsible for the continuing miscarriage of justice over the Ko Tao murders. The two Burmese migrant workers, who are in court facing serious charges, are the “usual scape-goats”. There is also an appalling attitude among many Thais towards European women and the wearing of normal swimwear on the beach, as though it was an indication of “loose morals”.

Yet just look at the lack of morals in Thai society. We have a thriving sex industry where young people are exploited and trafficked. Thais are the predominant clients and beneficiaries of this industry. The country’s rulers, past and present, including Prayut, Abhisit and Taksin, are usually mass murderers who will never face trial for human rights abuses. Corruption and exploitation by the rich and powerful is the order of the day.

The root cause of this appalling situation is that there is far too little opposition to authoritarianism in all its forms. This is a vicious circle because when individual people are brave enough to speak out, they are subject to repression. The left is weak, the trade unions are disorganised or mainly apolitical and the pro-democracy Red Shirts have been demobilised by the UDD and Taksin. The National Human Rights Commission is staffed by members of the security forces, fanatical royalists and reactionaries. The NGOs are either with the military or are only interested in campaigning for fragmented single issues.

Fundamentally it is the weakness of the left and organised labour which accounts for a lack of strong opposition. Not only is the opposition to authoritarianism too weak, but there is almost no opposition to nationalism and racism in society. In such circumstances, ordinary Thai working people are tied to the mainstream ideology of the ruling class. Karl Marx once commented that British workers would never be able to liberate themselves until they got rid of racist ideas about the Irish. We could say similarly that ordinary working Thais will not be able to liberate themselves until they reject nationalism and racism. Throughout Europe today in an era of austerity, nationalism and racism are used to weaken movements opposed to neoliberalism and the impoverishment of workers. It is socialists and left-wing organisations which form the core of opposition to racism and nationalism in Europe.

In Thailand we desperately need to revive the left in a struggle for democracy and against national chauvinism.

Class War

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai military junta has been summonsing all chairpersons of local trade unions to report to army offices. So far only  about half the elected trade unionists are complying with the dictates of the generals.

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Of course, the junta has not summonsed employers or businessmen to report and be given a lecture in discipline.

Of course, the junta has not systematically summonsed NGO leaders or conservative academics who  have advocated shrinking the democratic space. Neither has it arrested and jailed the Democrat Party thugs who used violence on the streets earlier this year.

Taken with the general picture of the military crack down, it is obvious that red shirts, trade unionists, progressive academics and all those who are pro-democracy activists are the target of repression.

Make no mistake, this is a class war, waged by the conservative elites who hate democracy because democracy helps to empower the poor, the working class and the farmers. They hate Taksin because he won the hearts and minds of the poor and could win elections. They don’t hate Taksin for his human rights abuses or even the fact that he used the same corrupt practices as the generals and the Democrats.

Trade Unionists Denounce the Coup d’état

Trade Unionists Denounce the Coup d’état

Numnual  Yapparat

The role of trade unions in Thai politics has been misrepresented by the right-wing union bureaucrats from the state enterprises, such as the government savings bank, electricity generation, water, railways and Thai Airways. In previous months, some of these bureaucrats and their followers, stood side by side with Sutep’s mob to overthrow the elected government. They are well-known for being conservative trade unionists as well as kowtowing to the army. Yet, the majority of employees in the state enterprises do not share their views.

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Today, some progressive trade unions have issued a statement to denounce the coup d’état and the right-wing unionists who support the coup. They call themselves the “Anti-Coup Workers Group”

“Turnleft Thailand” had a chance to interview one of the “Anti-Coup Workers Group” activists from the factory belt on the outskirts of Bangkok. 

How will workers be affected by the coup?

The most obvious thing is that workers cannot exercise their rights freely under the imposition of martial law. This is the period for negotiating mid-year bonuses. Many will not dare to come out to fight for better working conditions. Normally workers will put pressure on employers by protesting in front of factories while negotiations are taking place. This is banned under military rule.

How can workers cope with the dictatorship?

Basically, we try to protest against the coup by every means possible, such as wearing anti-coup t-shirts, circulating news in Facebook, issuing statements against the coup and distributing these statements secretly in factories or by placing leaflets in shopping mall toilets close to factory areas. These activities cannot be done openly and take time. We are trying to spread these activities to other provinces too.  We are scared like other people and do not want to get arrested, but we have no choice but to fight back. 

What are the future tasks for workers? How can workers’ struggles become a part of fighting for democracy?

There is no question that in the future we shall have to join the general struggle for democracy in society in order to strengthen it. We also will be contacting our international union affiliations to gain solidarity for our demands about democracy and elections.

Our demands are shown in the statement below. 

Do the rank and file union members care about the coup?

Rank and file union members understand democracy better than some of their leaders who gave food and water to soldiers. Impressively, the rank and file workers came out to berate, as well as threaten, the union leaders that they will not pay union fees and not engage with union activities if the leaders carry on like this. Some workers even demanded that their leaders help them to take part in anti-coup activities.

Statement

By

The Anti-Coup Workers Group

We are the “Anti-Coup Workers Group” from industrial areas on the outskirts of Bangkok. We want to state our opposition to this coup d’état. The army stepped on our hearts and crushed the wishes of the majority of democratic Thai citizens. The coup destroyed our freedom of speech and the basic right to exercise our political views. Under normal circumstance, workers’ rights are already limited in order to favour the employers. Under the dictatorship our situation will go from bad to worse.

In previous history, workers have always had an important role in the fight against the dictatorship. In the past, after previous coups, military governments have issued new laws that severely limit workers’ rights.

We were very ashamed when we saw some sections of the trade union movement engaging with the anti-democratic thugs which sought to overthrow the elected government.

The Anti-Coup Workers Group demands….

  • The immediate cancellation of martial law
  • An end to the coup
  • Power to be returned to the people
  • The unconditional release of all arrested people
  • No amnesty bill to white wash the military’s crimes