a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides that a person shall enjoy the liberty to unite and form an association, cooperative, union, organization, community, or any other group. Labor laws guarantee the rights of workers in private-sector and state-owned enterprises (SOE) to organize trade unions and engage in collective bargaining. Civil servants have the liberty to assemble as a group, provided that such assembly does not affect the efficiency of national administration and continuity of public services and does not have a political objective.
Among wage and salary workers, 3.5 percent are unionized and only 34 out of 77 provinces have labor unions.
The law allows private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their choosing without prior authorization, to bargain collectively, and to conduct legal strikes, although these rights come with restrictions. For example, workers have the rights to strike legally if they have notified the authorities 24 hours in advance, if a demonstration is not on public roads, and if it does not violate any laws.
When bargaining collectively, workers can submit a set of demands through the union if at least one-fifth of the workforce are members of that union; or at workplaces without a union, if they have signatures from at least 15 percent of the workforce. Under the law, only workers with the same employer or in the same industry may form a union. Contract workers, even if working in the same factory and doing the same job as full-time workers, cannot join the union because they are classified as belonging to the service industry while full-time workers come under the “manufacturing industry.” Nevertheless, the law makes contract workers eligible for the same benefits as those enjoyed by union members. The inability for contract workers and full-time workers to join the same union could diminish the benefits of bargaining collectively as a larger group. In addition, short-term contract workers are less likely to join unions for fear of losing their jobs. Labor advocates claim that many companies hire contract workers to undermine unionization efforts. A survey of the auto-parts and electronics industries found that more than 45 percent of the workforce consists of contract workers, and about half of them have short-term contracts.
The law allows one union per SOE. Banks, trains, airlines, airports, marine ports, and postal services are among those industries owned by SOEs. If an SOE union’s membership falls below 25 percent of the eligible workforce, regulations require dissolution of the union.
The law restricts formal links between unions of SOEs and their private-sector counterparts because they are governed by two separate laws.
The law allows employees at workplaces without a union to submit collective demands if at least 15 percent of employees are listed as supporting that demand. Employees in private enterprises with more than 50 workers may establish “employee committees” to represent workers’ financial interests and to negotiate with employers; employees may also form “welfare committees” to represent workers’ non-financial interests. Employee and welfare committees may offer employers suggestions but are barred from submitting labor demands or going on strike. The law prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions against workers for their participation in these committees and from obstructing the work of the committees. Union leaders often join employee and welfare committees to avail themselves of this legal protection. Within 11,600 enterprises which have more than 50 workers in the country, there are 1,689 labor unions, 14,888 welfare committees, and 739 employee committees. NGOs report that welfare committees are uncommon in the border regions where the majority of workers are migrants.
The government may block private-sector strikes with national security implications or with negative repercussions on the population at large, but it did not invoke this provision during the year.
Strikes and lockouts are prohibited at SOEs and penalties for violations include imprisonment, fines, or both.
In March 2018 the Supreme Court ordered seven union leaders of the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to pay a fine of THB 15 million ($500,000) plus accrued interest for leading an illegal strike after a train derailment in 2009 despite the finding of the International Labor Organization (ILO) that union leaders’ actions were in line with international standards on the role of unions in occupational safety and health (OSH). To execute the court order, the SRT in November 2018 started to garnish the wages and seize the assets of union leaders. In addition, several SRT union leaders were charged with corruption and face imprisonment of up to 10 years and fines. In October the NACC filed criminal corruption charges against the seven union leaders. If convicted, the leaders could potentially face up to five years in prison.
Noncitizen migrant workers, whether registered or undocumented, do not have the right to form unions or serve as union officials. Migrants can join unions organized and led by Thai citizens. Migrant-worker participation in unions is low due to language barriers, weak understanding of legal rights, frequent changes in employment status, membership fees, restrictive union regulations, and segregation of citizen workers from migrant workers by industry and by zones (particularly in border and coastal areas). In practice, unregistered associations, community-based organizations, and religious groups often represent the interests of migrant workers. In workplaces where the majority of workers are migrants, migrant workers are sometimes elected to the welfare committees and employee committees. Migrant workers are allowed to make collective demands if they obtain the names and signatures of at least 15 percent of employees. NGOs reported few cases, however, where migrant workers’ collective demands were successful in effecting change, particularly along the border areas.
The law does not protect union members against antiunion actions by employers until their union is registered. To register a union, at least 10 workers must submit their names to the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare (DLPW). The verification process of vetting the names and employment status with the employer exposes the workers to potential retaliation before registration is complete. Moreover, the law requires that union officials be full-time employees of the company or SOE and prohibits permanent union staff.
The law protects employees and union members from criminal or civil liability for participating in negotiations with employers, initiating a strike, organizing a rally, or explaining labor disputes to the public. The law does not protect employees and union members from criminal charges for reputational damage, however, and NGOs report that reputational damage charges are sometimes used to intimidate union members and employees. The law also does not prohibit lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, or silence critics through costly legal defense. In March the government amended the Criminal Procedure Code to protect defendants in frivolous libel cases from prosecution. Under this amended law, a court may dismiss a defamation lawsuit if it is considered dishonest. Human rights defenders hope this amendment will help minimize strategic litigation against workers and provide protection for honest whistleblowers. In June human rights lawyers assisted five migrant workers in filing a retaliatory lawsuit claiming compensation for lost wages, reputational damage, and legal fees after the courts dismissed the employer’s lawsuit against the migrant workers on charges of illegal entry, illegal stay, and theft.
The law prohibits termination of employment of legal strikers but permits employers to hire workers or use subcontract workers to replace strikers. The legal requirement to call a general meeting of trade union members and obtain strike approval by at least 50 percent of union members constrained strike action, given that many factories use shift workers, making it difficult to make a quorum.
Labor-law enforcement was inconsistent and in some instances ineffective in protecting workers who participated in union activities. Employers may dismiss workers for any reason except participation in union activities, provided the employer pays severance. There were reports of workers dismissed for engaging in union activities, both before and after registration; in some cases, labor courts ordered workers reinstated. Labor courts or the Labor Relations Committee may make determinations on complaints of unfair dismissals or labor practices and may require compensation or reinstatement of workers or union leaders with wages and benefits equal to those received prior to dismissal. The Labor Relations Committee consists of representatives of employers, government, and workers groups, and there are associate labor court judges who represent workers and employers. There were reports employers attempted to negotiate terms of reinstatement after orders were issued, offering severance packages for voluntary resignation, denying reinstated union leaders access to work, or demoting workers to jobs with lower wages and benefits.
In some cases, judges awarded compensation in lieu of reinstatement when employers or employees claimed they could not work together peacefully; however, authorities rarely applied penalties for conviction of labor violations, which include imprisonment, a fine, or both. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Labor inspection increasingly focused on high-risk workplaces and the use of intelligence from civil society partners. Labor inspections, however, remained infrequent and the number of labor inspectors and resources were inadequate given the size of the workforce. Trade-union leaders suggested that inspectors should move beyond perfunctory document reviews toward more proactive inspections. Rights advocates reported that provincial-level labor inspectors often attempted to mediate cases, even when labor rights violations requiring penalties had been found.
There were reports employers used various techniques to weaken labor-union association and collective-bargaining efforts. These included replacing striking workers with subcontractors, which the law permits as long as strikers continue to receive wages; delaying negotiations by failing to show up at Labor Relations Committee meetings or sending non-decision makers to negotiate; threatening union leaders and striking workers; pressuring union leaders and striking workers to resign; dismissing union leaders, ostensibly for business reasons, violation of company rules, or negative attitudes toward the company; prohibiting workers from demonstrating in work zones; inciting violence, then using a court order to clamp down on protests; transferring union leaders to other branches, thus making them ineligible to participate in employee or welfare committees; transferring union leaders and striking workers to different, less desirable positions or stripping them of management authority; and supporting the registration of competing unions to circumvent established, uncooperative unions.
Employers sometimes filed lawsuits against union leaders and strikers for trespass, defamation, and vandalism. For instance, in 2015 the central labor court ordered four union leaders of Thai Airways to pay claims of damages in the amount of THB 326 million ($10,900,000) for causing reputational damage; the case is now pending a Supreme Court decision. The ILO expressed concern that the court decision ran counter to the principles of freedom of association, and that the excessive damages awarded were likely to have an intimidating effect on the Thai Airways Union and inhibit their legitimate union activities. Human rights defenders said lawsuits like these and threats to terminate the employment of union leaders had a chilling effect on freedoms of expression and association (also see section 7.b.).
NGOs and labor advocates reported incidents where their staff were followed or threatened by employers after they had been seen advocating for labor rights.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, except in the case of national emergency, war, martial law, or imminent public calamity. The prescribed penalties for human trafficking were sufficient to deter violations. The government amended the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act for the third time in five years. The new amendment defined forced labor as a stand-alone offense, and guaranteed access to services and protections for forced-labor victims similar to services and protections for human-trafficking victims. It also applied the same penalties when forced labor victims were seriously injured or killed. To implement the amendment, government agencies and non-government groups worked on revisions of subordinate regulations, victim-identification guidelines, and standard operating procedures. The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, the Ministry of Labor, and the Office of Attorney General organized training workshops for law enforcement and multidisciplinary teams to understand the changes to the law.
There were many reports that forced labor continued in fishing, agriculture, domestic work, and begging. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
NGOs acknowledged a decline in the most severe forms of labor exploitation in the fishing sector. Some NGOs, however, point to inconsistencies in enforcing labor laws, particularly around irregular or delayed payment of wages, illegal wage deductions, illegal recruitment fees, withholding of documents, and not providing written contracts in a language that workers understand. In March the government for the first time began to award accident compensation for all migrant fishery workers regardless of registration status.
Labor rights groups reported that some employers sought to prevent migrant workers from changing jobs or forced them to work by delaying wages, burying them in debt, or accusing them of theft. NGOs reported cases where employers colluded to blacklist workers who reported labor violations, joined unions, or changed jobs.
The government and NGOs reported a significant increase in the number of trafficking victims identified among smuggled migrants, particularly from Burma. Most of those cases involved transnational trafficking syndicates both in Thailand and in the country of origin. Many victims were subjected to deception, detention, starvation, human branding, and abuse during their journey. Traffickers sometimes destroyed the passports and identity documents of victims. Some victims were sold to different smugglers and subjected to debt bondage.
Private companies continued to pursue civil and criminal lawsuits against workers, NGOs, and journalists (also see section 7.a.). Since 2016, Thammakaset, a poultry farm owner in Lopburi Province, has filed 13 criminal and civil cases against 14 former employees, labor rights activists, and journalists on various charges such as criminal defamation, theft of timecards, and computer crime, most recently in May. Authorities and courts dismissed most of these complaints and ordered Thammakaset to pay THB 1.7 million ($56,600) in compensation for back wages, overtime, and holiday pay to 14 former employees for labor-law violations. As of September some of these cases were still pending a court decision.
The ILO noted that the law allowed for forced prison labor in several circumstances, including as punishment for participating in strikes or for holding or expressing certain political views.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law protects children from child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, use in illicit activities, and forced labor, but does not meet the international standard for prohibiting military recruitment of children by non-state armed groups. The law regulates the employment of children under age 18 and prohibits employment of children under 15. Children under 18 are prohibited from work in any activity involving metalwork, hazardous chemicals, poisonous materials, radiation, extreme temperatures, high noise levels, toxic microorganisms, operation of heavy equipment, and work underground or underwater. The law also prohibits children under 18 from workplaces deemed hazardous, such as slaughterhouses, gambling establishments, places where alcohol is sold, massage parlors, entertainment venues, sea-fishing vessels, and seafood processing establishments. As such, children ages 15 to 17 may legally engage in hazardous “home work” (work assigned by the hirer of an industrial enterprise to a homeworker to be produced or assembled outside of the workplace). The law provides limited coverage to child workers in some informal sectors, such as agriculture, domestic work, and home-based businesses. Self-employed children and children working outside of employment relationships, defined by the existence of an agreement or contract and the exchange of work against pay, are not protected under the national labor law, but they are protected under laws on child protection and trafficking in persons. Children participating in paid and non-paid Muay Thai (Thai boxing) competitions, however, are not protected under national labor law, and it is unclear whether child-protection legislation sufficiently protects child Muay Thai participants.
Penalties for violations of the law may include imprisonment or fines and have been largely effective as a deterrent. Parents of victims whom the court finds were “driven by unbearable poverty” can be exempt from penalties.
Government and private-sector entities used bone-density checks and dental examinations in an effort to identify potentially underage job applicants. Such tests, however, were not always conclusive. Labor inspectors used information from civil society to target inspections for child labor and forced labor.
Civil society and international organizations reported few cases of child labor in manufacturing, fishing, shrimping, and seafood processing. They attributed the decline to legal and regulatory changes in 2014 that expanded the number of hazardous-job categories in which children under 18 were prohibited from working and that in 2017 increased penalties for the use of child laborers.
NGOs, however, reported that some children from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and ethnic minority communities were working in informal sectors and small businesses, including farming, home-based businesses, restaurants, street vending, auto services, food processing, construction, domestic work, and begging. Some children were forced to work in prostitution, pornography, begging, and the production and trafficking of drugs (see section 6, Children). The Thailand Internet Crimes against Children task force investigated 19 cases of child-sex trafficking and 60 cases of possession of child-pornographic materials.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. The DLPW is the primary agency charged with enforcing child-labor laws and policies. In 2018 the government increased the number of labor inspectors and interpreters. During the year, 94 percent of labor inspections were targeted at fishing ports and high-risk workplaces including garment factories, shrimp and seafood processing, poultry and pig farms, auto repair shops, construction sites, and in service-sector businesses like restaurants, karaoke bars, hotels, and gas stations. The DLPW identified 99 cases involving 206 alleged violations of child-labor laws. In the majority of cases, employers were cited for failing to notify DLPW of employing children ages 15 to 18. Only 16 cases of underage child labor were found. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Observers noted several limiting factors in effective enforcement of child-labor laws, including insufficient labor inspectors, insufficient interpreters during labor inspections, ineffective inspection procedures (especially in hard-to-reach workplaces like private residences, small family-based business units, farms, and fishing boats), and a lack of official identity documents among young migrant workers from neighboring countries. A lack of public understanding of child-labor laws and standards was also an important factor.
In June the government published its first national working-children survey, using research methodology in line with international guidelines. This survey was the product of cooperation among the Ministry of Labor, the National Statistical Office (NSO), and the ILO. The survey revealed that of 10.47 million children ages 5 to 17, 3.9 percent were working children, including 1.7 percent who were child laborers (exploited working children)–1.3 percent in hazardous work, and an additional 0.4 percent in non-hazardous work. The majority of child laborers were doing hazardous work in household or family businesses (55 percent), in the areas of agriculture (56 percent), service trades (23 percent), and manufacturing (20 percent). Boys were in child labor more than girls and more than half of child laborers were not in school. Of the top three types of hazardous work which children performed in the country, 22 percent involved lifting heavy loads, 8 percent working in extreme conditions or at night, and 7 percent being exposed to dangerous chemicals and toxins.
Also, see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings , and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Labor laws do not specifically prohibit discrimination in the workplace. The law does impose penalties of imprisonment or fines for anyone committing gender or gender-identity discrimination, including in employment decisions. A law requires workplaces with more than 100 employees to hire at least one worker with disabilities for every 100 workers.
Discrimination with respect to employment occurred against LGBTI persons, women, and migrant workers (also see section 7.e.). Government regulations require employers to pay equal wages and benefits for equal work, regardless of gender. Union leaders stated the wage differences for men and women were generally minimal and were mostly due to different skills, duration of employment, and types of jobs, as well as legal requirements which prohibit the employment of women in hazardous work. Nonetheless, a 2016 ILO report on migrant women in the country’s construction sector found female migrant workers consistently received less than their male counterparts, and more than half were paid less than the official minimum wage, especially for overtime work (see also section 6, Women).
In September 2018 the police cadet academy announced it would no longer admit female cadets. This decision was widely criticized as discriminatory and detrimental to the ability of the police force to identify some labor violations against women. Discrimination against persons with disabilities occurred in employment, access, and training. Advocacy groups for the rights of persons with disabilities filed a complaint on embezzlement and illegal deduction of wages from workers with disabilities in April. The case is under investigation by the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission.
Members of the LGBTI community faced frequent discrimination in the workplace, partly due to common prejudices and a lack of protective laws and policies on discrimination. Transgender workers reportedly faced even greater constraints, and their participation in the workforce was often limited to a few professions, such as cosmetology and entertainment.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage was three times higher than the government-calculated poverty line.
The maximum workweek by law is 48 hours, or eight hours per day over six days, with an overtime limit of 36 hours per week. Employees engaged in “dangerous” work, such as the chemical, mining, or other industries involving heavy machinery, may work a maximum of 42 hours per week and may not work overtime. Petrochemical industry employees may not work more than 12 hours per day but may work continuously for a maximum period of 28 days.
The law requires safe and healthy workplaces, including for home-based businesses, and prohibits pregnant women and children younger than 18 from working in hazardous conditions. The law also requires the employer to inform employees about hazardous working conditions prior to employment. Workers do not have the right to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
Legal protections do not apply equally to all sectors. For example, the daily minimum wage does not apply to employees in the public sector, SOEs, domestic work, nonprofit work, and seasonal agricultural work. Ministerial regulations provide household domestic workers some protections regarding leave, minimum age, and payment of wages, but they do not address minimum wage, regular working hours, social security, or maternity leave. NGOs reported contract workers in the public sector received wages below minimum wage as they were governed by separate laws.
A large income gap remained between formal and informal employment, with workers in nonagricultural sectors earning three times that of those in the agricultural sector, on average. According to government statistics, 55 percent of the labor force worked in the informal economy, with limited protection under labor laws and the social security system.
The ILO and many NGOs reported that daily minimum wages, overtime, and holiday-pay regulations were not well enforced in small enterprises, in certain areas (especially rural or border areas), or in certain sectors (especially agriculture, construction, and sea fishing). Labor unions estimated 5-10 percent of workers received less than the minimum wage; however, the share of workers who received less than minimum wage was likely higher among unregistered migrant workers and in the border region. Unregistered migrant workers rarely sought redress under the law due to their lack of legal status and the fear of losing their livelihood. In September police raided and interviewed hundreds of workers in medium-size garment factories in Mae Sot along the Burma border after the media reported that workers were paid less than the daily minimum wage. Labor inspectors under the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare then demanded that employers in those factories pay back wages to workers as required by the law.
The DLPW enforces laws related to labor relations and occupational safety and health. The law subjects employers to fines and imprisonment for minimum-wage noncompliance, but the government did not effectively enforce the law and penalties were insufficient to deter violations. There were many reports during the year of minimum-wage noncompliance which went to mediation, where workers settle for owed wages lower than the daily minimum wage. The DLPW issued orders to provincial offices in 2018 prohibiting labor inspectors from settling cases where workers received wages and benefits less than that required under the law.
Convictions for violations of occupational safety and health (OSH) regulations include imprisonment and fines; however, the number of OSH experts and inspections was insufficient, with most inspections only taking place in response to complaints. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the workforce as well. Union leaders estimated only 20 percent of workplaces, mostly large factories owned by international companies, complied with government OSH standards. Workplace safety instructions as well as training on workplace safety were mostly in Thai, likely contributing to higher incidence of accidents among migrant workers.
Medium-sized and large factories often applied government health and safety standards, but overall enforcement of safety standards was lax, particularly in the informal economy and among smaller businesses. NGOs and union leaders noted that ineffective enforcement was due to insufficient qualified inspectors, an overreliance on document-based inspection (instead of workplace inspection), a lack of protection against retaliation for workers complaints, a lack of interpreters, and a failure to impose effective penalties on noncompliant employers. The Ministry of Labor hired and trained more inspectors and foreign-language interpreters in 2018. The interpreters were assigned primarily to fishing-port inspection centers, multidisciplinary human-trafficking teams, and provincial labor offices with a high density of migrant workers.
The country provides universal health care for all citizens, and social security and workers’ compensation programs to insure employed persons in cases of injury or illness and to provide maternity, disability, death, child-allowance, unemployment, and retirement benefits. Registered migrant workers in both the formal and informal labor sectors and their dependents are also eligible to buy health insurance from the Ministry of Public Health.
NGOs reported that many construction workers, especially subcontracted workers and migrant workers, were not in the social-security system or covered under the workers’ compensation program, despite legal requirements. While the social-security program is mandatory for employed persons, it excludes workers in the informal sectors. Workers employed in the informal sector, those in temporary or seasonal employment, and the self-employed, may contribute voluntarily to the workers’ compensation program and receive government matching funds.
In March the Ministry of Labor issued regulations providing workers compensation to all workers except vendors and domestic workers. Labor-union leaders reported, however, that compensation for work-related illnesses was rarely granted because the connection between the health condition and the workplace was often difficult to prove.
In November a new labor-protection law for workers in the fishing industry came into effect. It required workers to have access to health-care and social-security benefits, and for vessels with deck size over 300 tonnage gross or which go out more than three days at a time to provide adequate living conditions for workers. Social-security benefits and other parts of the law, however, were not enforced pending approval of subordinate laws by the Council of State. The existing government requirements are for registered migrant fishery workers to buy health insurance and for vessel owners to contribute to the workers’ compensation fund. In August, NGOs reported the first case where a fishery migrant worker holding a border-pass became eligible for accident compensation. The lack of sufficient occupational safety and health training in the migrant workers’ language, of inspections by OSH experts, of first aid, and of reliable systems to ensure timely delivery of injured workers to hospitals after serious accidents, increased the vulnerability of fishery workers. During the year, NGOs reported several cases where the navy rescued fishery workers who had been in accidents at sea.
NGOs reported poor working conditions and lack of labor protections for migrant workers, including those near border-crossing points. In July 2018 the Royal Ordinance Concerning the Management of Foreign Workers’ Employment went into effect. The decree provides for civil penalties for employing or sheltering unregistered migrant workers, while strengthening worker protections by prohibiting Thai employment brokers and employers from charging migrant workers additional fees for recruitment. The decree also bans subcontracting and prohibits employers from holding migrant workers’ documents. It outlaws those convicted of violating labor and anti-trafficking-in-persons laws from operating employment agencies. In October the Chiang Mai provincial court sentenced an employer who retained the personal documents of migrant employees to one month in prison and a fine of THB 10,000 ($333), but the penalties were later reduced to 15 days’ imprisonment and a fine of THB 5,000 ($167).
Labor-brokerage firms used a “contract labor system” under which workers sign an annual contract. By law businesses must provide contract laborers “fair benefits and welfare without discrimination;” however, employers often paid contract laborers less and provided fewer or no benefits.
Department of Employment regulations limit the maximum charges for recruitment fees, but effective enforcement of the rules was hindered by workers’ unwillingness to provide information and the lack of documentary evidence regarding underground recruitment, documentation fees, and migration costs. Exploitative employment-service agencies persisted in charging citizens working overseas illegal recruitment fees as high as THB 500,000 ($16,700), that frequently equaled two years of earnings. NGOs reported that workers would often borrow this money at exorbitant interest rates from informal moneylenders.
In 2018, the latest year for which data were available, there were 86,297 reported incidents of accidents or work-related diseases. Of these, 2 percent resulted in organ loss, disability, or death. The Social Security Office reported most serious workplace accidents occurred in manufacturing, wholesale retail trade, construction, transportation, hotels, and restaurants. Observers said workplace accidents in the informal and agricultural sectors and among migrant workers were underreported. Employers rarely diagnosed or compensated occupational diseases, and few doctors or clinics specialized in them.