Thailand Economic Crash Crushes Working Poor
by Seth Mydans
PATHUM THANI, Thailand -- Six weeks ago, the
seamstresses at the PAR Garment Factory here on the outskirts of
Bangkok arrived at work to find a sign on the gate that read:
"The company is closed."
Uniformed guards told them to go home. The factory was bankrupt. But many of the workers -- migrants from poor rural areas -- had nowhere else to go.
So they stayed, sleeping on straw mats on the sidewalk by the factory gate, waiting for some stroke of good fortune they know will never come.
"We can't find work at another factory because other factories are closing too," said Song Siwang, a 37-year-old seamstress. "And we don't want to go back to our home villages because there is no work there either."
Since the summer, Thailand and its Southeast Asian neighbors have been gripped by the region's worst economic crisis in decades. Currencies and stock markets are plummeting, banks and businesses are closing and jobs are being lost by the hundreds of thousands.
The 449 people at the factory here who lost their jobs here are among some 4 million rural migrants who flooded into the capital during the last decade, when Thailand had one of the world's fastest-growing economies and everybody dreamed of riches.
"I came to Bangkok because I thought life here would be wonderful," said Suthasini Keoleklai, 29. "I thought I would make a lot of money and be a wealthy person."
Now she and the other workers here -- still as poor as ever -- are part of the first wave of layoffs in an economic catastrophe that could cost 2 million jobs by the end of next year, according to Pasuk Phongpaichit, an economist at Chulalongkorn University.
Their story is the story of poor workers throughout Southeast Asia who in growing numbers are expected to lose their jobs in the months to come, some of the last to benefit and the first to suffer in the region's economic rise and fall.
Ms. Pasuk is co-author of a book published last year titled "Thailand's Boom!" (Silkworm Books) in which she describes the astonishing transformation of this rural nation into an exemplar of the "Asian miracle," with 8 percent annual growth, thriving new industries and an expanding middle class.
Few nations have experienced the kind of building spree that turned Bangkok's skyline, in a blink, into a chaos of odd-shaped towers. Few have indulged like Thailand in car-buying: it is one of the world's leading markets for Mercedes-Benz sedans and the leading purchaser, after the United States, of pickup trucks.
But there was always an underside to the boom: fully 60 percent of the country's 60 million people remained poor. Half the nation's wealth was in the hands of its richest 10 percent. The disparity in income between the country's rich and poor became one of the five sharpest in the world, according to World Bank figures.
Throughout the region, to varying degrees, economic growth has brought the greatest benefits to a privileged few. The poor majority often gained better health care and better social services, but they remained poor.
Miss Suthasini, who came to work at the PAR Garment Factory a decade ago, has lived this side of Thailand's boom.
"In these 10 years my country has grown rich," she said, "but not me. Nothing for me has improved."
She earned the minimum wage on her first day of work 10 years ago, and she earned the minimum wage on her last day, last month. Far from making her wealthy, her salary of $3.50 a day was not even enough to cover her basic needs.
Like the bankers and property developers whose profligacy helped cause the country's crash, Miss Suthasini has been left not only jobless but also in debt. She owes $40, or nearly two weeks' pay.
Beyond this, she has little to show for Thailand's economic boom.
The lives of the country's new middle class have been transformed by their new wealth. Even if they lose their jobs, they have new homes, new cars, a new appreciation for wine. But the people who worked at the PAR Garment Factory have been left with almost nothing.
"The role of the poor in the boom has been to create the wealth," said Ji Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn. "Now when the boom turns to slump, some of them will be cast aside, and they have nothing to cushion them at all."
Miss Song is one of 10 children in a farming family in Thailand's poor northeast, a region that suffers chronically from a cycle of drought and flood. All but one of her siblings also migrated to Bangkok -- the sisters as factory workers, the brothers as drivers. "These were the only jobs we could get," she said. "None of us finished elementary school."
"I love sewing," she said. But she had only four years of schooling and she could not read the labels on the garments she made for Gap, Nike and London Fog. She is not unusual. Eighty percent of the country's work force has not progressed beyond elementary school.
The boom years transformed the country's farms and villages as well, tying them more closely than ever to the economy of the cities. In many places, Ms. Pasuk said, much of the rural population depends on the earnings of family members in Bangkok.
"We came to the city to work and send money home to our parents," said Miss Song. "Now we are losing our jobs. Who will support my family? If I go home, who will support me?"
Copyright (c) 1997 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission