BWI expresses concern over Thailand's militarist pandemic policy

The Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) and the Building and Woodworkers' Industrial Council of Thailand (BWICT) express their serious concerns over Thailand’s militarist approach in managing the spread of COVID-19 among workers.

Last week, the country’s Prime Minister ordered a month-long lockdown of all construction sites in Bangkok as a response to the emergence of more clusters of construction camps in the capital, which of the last count has 575 clusters, housing about 81,000 workers. Since May, 37 clusters have been found in Bangkok camps. Many of these clusters have reportedly been infected by COVID-19.  

The order, which included the country’s four other southern border provinces Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, also deployed military personnel to supposedly ensure that workers, particularly migrant construction workers, remain confined in their camps.

The order caused widespread panic among workers and the exodus of migrant workers, many of whom are Cambodian, fleeing constructions camps to cross the country’s border. There were even reports of employers dumping migrant workers on the roadside, leaving them all alone and with no help to find their way back home. These all happened despite Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin’s pronouncement that affected workers will be compensated with 50 percent of their wages, provided with adequate food and water, and tested for COVID-19. 

BWI and BWICT assert that the Thai government could have averted this humanitarian crisis in the making had it seriously implemented a robust mass-testing, contact-tracing and treatment of workers exposed to the COVID-19. Given that the country’s construction industry employs more than 600,000 documented migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, a pro-active and science-based pandemic policy could have been implemented among the ranks of the workers. A military-style approach in responding to the crisis will not contain the spread of the pandemic. It is even prone to human and labour rights abuses, as demonstrated by the failed experiences of the Philippines and Cambodia. Often, military-style lockdowns are used by government and employers to renege from their statutory obligations to workers. 

BWI and BWICT join the broad Thai trade union movement’s call to its government to provide wage protection and secure the employment contracts of affected migrant workers regardless of their migration status. The provision of adequate food supplies to workers at construction camps and access to medical and health services, including vaccines, must also be ensured by government entities in partnership with competent humanitarian organisations.

The housing facilities of migrant workers must also be immediately improved from densely-populated areas to International Labour Organisation (ILO)-sanctioned facilities. As long as workers are provided with poor housing facilities where they are packed like sardines, as in the case of Singapore and Malaysia, construction sites will always succumb to the super spread of COVID-19. 

Lastly, BWI and BWICT call on the Thai government not to use this issue as an excuse to hunt down and deport undocumented migrant workers. Rather, this should be seen as an opportunity to legalise their stay and employment, and ensure their rights as migrants and workers. 

(Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)