Opinion: When incompetence leads to indigence

Written by Tek Harrington for Thai Enquirer

My 10-year career in property development has taught me that, in any given project, construction workers are as much of a stakeholder as the designers, end-users, owners, and investors. Without builders, luxury retail complexes, high-end condominiums, and Grade-A office towers would not exist.  

When it was announced that BMA had ordered the closure of all construction sites in Bangkok and demanded the workers to go into camps as a method to stop the spread, I became worried over the welfare of these workers.

Construction workers are some of the lowest paid laborers in this country; if they cannot work, how will they earn money to buy essentials to keep them alive in these campsites. I started to wonder if they will receive aid from their employers, or if the government would make any meaningful effort in helping the workers. 

Then last Friday, the Thai Enquirer covered a story in which my worst fear was outlined. Volunteers who investigated 11 camps around the city found that none of the camps investigated were receiving the help and support that were promised by the government. 

Upon the same day of reading the article, I carried out my own investigation at a construction workers’ campsite near my house in the Yen Akart area. The site was staffed by a group of four army personnel. With my broken-Thai accent, I coyly told the army personnel that I am not a journalist and I won’t be taking any photos; I asked if there were workers at the site and if they needed help.

Unsurprisingly, the army personnel shrugged his shoulders and told me to ask someone else. Luckily, there was a Jao Na Tee / site security staff who overheard the conversation and invited me through the gates. 

After my conversation with the security staff, I was informed there are 460 workers at the site, roughly 80% are migrant workers, and of the 460 only 10 are children – I was told the kids are being well looked after. The Jao Na Tee said they received support from the local police station for the first time on the same day I went to investigate. So they received one meal each on 9th July but have been locked up since 28th June.  

My wife and I decided to take matters into our own hands. Liaising with a nearby street food vendor, we ordered 150 portions of food for that Friday and started to spread the word about our campsite. Cash donations came flooding in from friends and friends of friends; everything was done by word-of-mouth and a few posts on social media.

Within 24 hours, we had raised over 100,000 baht which is enough to send 200 boxes of food per day for the next two weeks as well as 200 care packages containing rice, tinned fish, instant jok, noodles, cooking essentials, masks and hand sanitisers, and still have money left over for water as well. My aim is to stretch the cash donation until the end of this month; sending 200 boxes of food per day may not seem enough but each time I drop off the food, I notice there are other private donors doing the same decent thing. 

After the initial two days of procuring food from the nearby vendor, I reached out to Bangkok Community Help Foundation (BCHF) who have since been preparing the daily 200 portions of food plus 200 care packages. The BCHF have been helping people in destitute since the pandemic began, targeting slum communities around Bangkok and, more recently, construction campsites. 

On Monday 12th July, I was further informed by the Jao Naa Tee at the site that Thailand’s Department of Labour have started sending 377 boxes of food per day with a promise of food being given daily for the next 16 days. I’m not entirely sure how the Department of Labour did their calculation to achieve 377 meals when there are 460 workers at the site, and assuming each 460 workers will need two meals, we will need 920 portions of food per day. But with the Department of Labour’s effort (377), plus my daily donation of 200, and other private donors, I am hopeful that we are sending enough portions of food to this campsite for the next couple of weeks. 

The elephant in the room in all of this is to question where is the employer? I have been informed the employer is offering aid but, from talking directly with the workers, their effort is not enough. Personally, I don’t want to get into a debate on whose responsibility it is to look after the workers. I very much welcome the discussion but knowing Thailand and our love for throwing responsibility from one party to the next, the face-saving actions rather than life-saving, and the mind-numbing bureaucracy, the debate would not yield much practical and tangible help that is needed right now. 

I have since reached out to The Thai Enquirer to see if they have received any update from the government. At the time of writing this, the government has not given a response. 

I want to know if the Department of Labour send food to every worker at every site in the city? How much food will they send? Will it be enough for everyone? How many meals per day? Any cleaning products? When is this abhorrent treatment of construction workers going to end? 

The saddest part of this entire fiasco is I’m looking after only one site. How many more are there? How many thousands of workers are starving right now? Is anything going to be done about it?

When incompetence leads to indigence, we – the people – have only one option and that is to band together and help those in dire need. Those who have been trusted to look after us are neglecting us. If one of us slips through the net, eventually we will all slip through the net. 

If you want to help, I recommend looking at the construction workers’ campsite near you and investigate if there are people locked up without basic necessities. And I’m not talking about sustenance; I’m talking about being treated like a human being.

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