The Thai state has consistently suppressed its unions, the latest SRT case explains why

Thailand is a country used to corruption. But an ongoing corruption case filed late last year has been so revealing that it defies even the most watered-down expectations of justice.

In late 2019, the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission filed a case against the leaders of the State Railway Union of Thailand (SRUT) over a train derailment case that asks if workers have the right to safe working conditions?

Back in 2009, the state’s answer was no.

When a train derailed near Hua Hin, eight people died and more than fifty were injured. Yuthana Thapcharoen, then-head of the State Railways of Thailand (SRT), refused to publicly state that the accident had been caused by malfunctioning equipment.

Police Lieutenant-Colonel Udom Chainoom suggested that the heavy rain that day had played a part. Eventually, the SRT blamed the train driver, with the official report on the accident stating that he had fallen asleep.

Was it the heavy rain and the drowsy driver?

Or was it the fact that vital equipment, including the dead man’s switch and vigilance control equipment, meant to safeguard against such eventualities, had been completely inoperative?

“The rubber seal preventing exhaust fumes from gushing into the driver’s compartment suddenly broke,” Sawit Kaewwan, president of the rail workers union, asserted, “so both drivers were knocked unconscious. There’s no other way that both drivers could have been knocked unconscious at the same time.”

There had been a derailment the day before in Bangkok, another a week prior in Kanchanburi. At the time, only 20 of the 170 locomotives run by the SRT were equipped with dead man’s switches and vigilance control equipment. Of the 20, clearly an even smaller number functioned.

The soaring number of deaths and derailments and the severe equipment malfunction clearly formed part of the same balance sheet.

1,200 SRUT members went on strike, refusing to drive trains with faulty dead man’s switches or vigilance control equipment.

“When the official report came out and it said the derailment happened because the driver was drunk, that was the breaking point.” Sawit said, visibly infuriated. “It gave us no respect, as professionals.”

“It was not just out of principle,” admits an SRUT train driver who asked to not be named. “We were also scared for our lives.”

It was this strike that led to the first case, in which Sawit and seven other union leaders were accused of staging an illegal strike, issued dismissal notices and ordered to pay a fine of 15 million baht, with an additional 7.5 per cent annual interest from the date of the case filing.

It seems that to the Thai government, the lives of eight human beings – and the thousands of workers endangered by the faulty equipment – were apparently worth just over 15 million baht. Not to be paid as compensation to the deceased but as a fine on the living for having the audacity to strike for better conditions.

Fast forward a decade, and Sawit has been reinstated as union president. His landslide reinstatement was initially blocked by the Ministry of Labour, but he was finally registered in 2017 after much international pressure from organisations like Human Rights Watch and the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

After his election, he and six other union leaders were informed that their wages and retirement would be docked to pay for the 15 million baht fine and additional 9 million baht interest – 24 million baht in total.

Sawit was calm as he recounted this. “They’ve confiscated our pay already. We take home 300 baht a month.”

Then, as recently as October 2019, Sawit and his colleagues were notified that the attorney general was prosecuting them in the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct.

“They said that we used our working time to engage in non-work-related activities which caused the SRT to make a loss. They accused us, as government officials, of malpractice.”

“We’ve already been punished once for this case.” Here, Sawit’s composure broke. “If you sentence someone to hang, would you make them hang twice?”

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, attended the union leaders’ most recent hearing before the corruption courts, on February 4.

“The fact that the entire case is going forward is shocking enough,” Robertson said. “I think this case has a great deal of potential for serious damage if people are imprisoned.”

Catherine Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, expressed sympathy for SRUT: “Sawit and their colleagues…have been deducted massive amounts of salary, they can’t support their families, there’s an incredible amount of pressure that’s been put on these leaders.” 

“The international community is one hundred percent behind the union. They were dealing with health and safety issues, and they have done the right thing.”

Sawit Kaewwan and the labour movement

That Thai unions are rarely reported on in Thailand is in no small part due to persistent government efforts to suppress it.

The Thai labour movement has its roots in the influx of Chinese labourers who dominated nascent industries like railway construction and mining in the late 1920s. As Sawit tells it, “Thai workers began moving into industry from agriculture, and so Chinese and Thai workers banded together to fight injustice.”

However, it wasn’t until 1932 when the Khana Ratsadon coup led to an outburst of labour activism, with strikes, demonstrations, and protests involving workers from across various industries.

However, when the military staged a countercoup under Plaek Phibunsongkhram in 1933, the small space that had been made for labour activism was shut down. Labour leaders and activists were arrested and charged under the anti-Communist act, and labour organisations were banned.

Sawit got involved with SRUT as a graduate of the Railway Technical School. He worked his way up to the director level in 1992, just as the military had staged another coup and Thailand fell under the control of the National Peacekeeping Council (NPC). Unions once again collapsed and were reformed as “associations.”

Since then, it has been an uphill battle – but one that Sawit deeply believes in. At the 21st anniversary of the disappearance of Tanong Po-Arn, a labour leader who “disappeared” during the 1991 military coup, Sawit was asked if labour movements should involve themselves in politics.

“The economy, society, politics, culture – these are all things that the ruling class have dictated down to us. If we want to fight through poverty and all these other obstacles we face, then we don’t have a choice, labourers must have political power.”

He has lived up to his own words.

At the height of the anti-Thaksin protests, Sawit headed the union movement to turn off utilities at police stations to pressure Samak Sundaravej for his resignation. In the press conference announcing the movement’s decision, he wore a black jacket, and beneath it, a dark green Che Guevara shirt.

The labour leader then controversially allied the movement with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), but soon defected as the PAD’s programme was seen to support undemocratic political change.

“The ideology of the ruling class has not changed from then until now,” Sawit declares. “They want to suppress workers movements. No matter where the government comes from – an election, a coup d’état, they have the same principles, which are to destroy the power of workers and labourers.”

Feingold, who was in Bangkok this January meeting with Thai government officials, makes similar observations. “The respect for workers’ rights is very, very weak in Thailand.”

“When we met with the labour minister, the Thai labour movement said they wanted a space for real social dialogue between government, business, and labour. They do not have that space, and it was clear that there was no government commitment to create that space.”

Yet, there is a sort of detached complicity between Thai public support for capitalism and the oppressive government forces which continually blaze up and smother union activity.    

“In Thailand, because of its political history, Marxist or socialist thought has always been opposed by the ruling classes,” Sawit explained.

“When Thai society talks about labour organising, they feel opposed to it and think that it will lead to a communist state. Consistent government propaganda has told Thai people that labour organising is a bad thing. But this is something we’ve tried to address not just politically but culturally.”

Feingold’s words struck a more optimistic tone. “I would hope the Thai public is interested in this.”

“Unions are really the muscle of democracy, if these collective bodies are being attacked, I would hope people would see this as a signal of what is to come with civil society freedoms.”  

Future of Thai labour movement

Yet, with high profile cases like Thanathorn Jungroongruankit’s disqualification as an MP and Future Forward’s dissolution, it seems like Thais are all too aware that civil society freedoms are in very limited supply in this country.

The Thai state’s conduct in the SRUT case has not come without consequences.

In October 2019, the US government announced that it will withdraw preferential tariffs for many Thai exports due to its “failure to adequately provide internationally-recognised worker’s rights.”

“This case is central to the AFL-CIO complaint against Thailand, which is part of the US Trade Representative decision last year,” Robertson says of Sawit’s ongoing trial.

It remains to be seen if this pressure is enough to tip the scales of justice. Sawit and the other union leaders are due to appear in court again on March 10. With the cynicism and optimism of someone who has dealt with the system for decades, Sawit closed our interview with the firm statement: “I believe in the power of the workers.”

Thailand is today, as ever, not confronted with any communist scare, but a deep totalitarian culture which has transformed the oppressive into the mundane.

Sawit’s case likely won’t be the wakeup call for the Thai public – but perhaps Thanathorn’s and the Future Forward Party’s case will. The Thai labour movement will keep on fighting regardless.

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