Thai women’s work

Three articles about “Women and Work” in Thailand written for the Kitakyushu Forum on Asian Women’s foreign correspondent programme for 1995-6, which were published in Volume 5 of the collected reports in December 1996.

Breaking through the barriers

The Bangkok Post, a major English-language daily newspaper, regularly runs color supplements celebrating special events, anniversaries and birthdays of important com- panies and institutions in the nation. Always prominent in these are photos of the senior management, and what is surprising to the farang (European foreign) eye, is not so much that women are featured prominently in such photos, but the positions they hold. They are seldom if ever at the absolute top of management, but they hold a significant number of the very senior positions, particularly in finance and other “economic” areas. In my home country-Australia and in much of the Western world, such positions are the least likely to be held by women. Most often women directed to “softer” posts; such as, in personnel.

This focus on commerce and economics is just one factor which sets Thai women apart from their sisters in most of rest of the world. In the Asian-Pacific region, Thailand has the highest rate of female participation in the work force. In 1990, Thai women accounted for 47% of the total labor force or about 52% of the female population. Among the 15 to 19 age group, more females than males are employed, a factor which has been attributed to the demand for domestic helpers, factory and service industry workers in urban areas. This relative equality of involvement in employment; however, does not extend to equality of opportunity. Women are hugely over-represented in lowly-paid (or unpaid) work with few chances of advancement. They are also concentrated in “female ghettos” in industries; such as, clothing and footwear and electronics. They also find it difficult or impossible to enter many other desirable areas of employment, particularly jobs which offer real decision-making power and influence.

A survey of educational statistics suggests such segregation is likely to continue with girls and women once again participating almost equally with men but in different fields. For example, in formal vocational and technical education, women make up just 3% of enrollment in industrial mechanics courses, but 97% in home economics and 90% in commerce. In universities, women predominate in humanities and social sciences but are heavily under-represented in law, engineering and agriculture.

The unpaid work mentioned above includes not only family housework, which in Thailand as in most of the rest of the world remains unrecognized, but also agricultural labor which still provides 58% of female employment (down from 86% 30 years ago). Only one in seven of these workers receive cash payment for their work, and the pace of development in agriculture has greatly disadvantaged these women. Both local attitudes and those of outsiders engaged in development work has tended to ensure that new technology has taken hold in men’s areas of agriculture, or at least that men usually receive the training to use it. Women have usually remained in traditional, less-productive work with corresponding low rewards.

As in rest of the world, Thai women are also often subject to the “double burden”. Not only do they work outside the home, but they are also left with primary or total responsibil- ity for housework and child care. A recent study found that in agricultural production, the working hours of men and women averaged 2,294 and 1,644 hours respectively. But when time for housework was added, the women’s average working year spanned 3,894 hours, more than 40% longer than men’s. Such effects may be ameliorated for upper and middle class women by the avability of domestic servants and extended family labor, but this is once again built on poorly-paid or unpaid female labor.

Returning to the articles with which this item began, it appears that while the women pictured in these glossy publications have come a long way, their lives are not representative of the bulk of Thai women’s. They are working in something of another female enclave, albeit a well paid one in a field which is traditionally dominated by men. While Thai women have a degree of access to the work force (and thus relative economic independence) which many women in the Asia-Pacific region might envy, they are still at the very beginning of winning the right to ‘develop their full potential, both physically and mentally intellectually’. The government has made support of this right a target in the 1992 National Declaration on Women.

Sex Work – A Labor Issue?

When I first told friends and acquaintances in Australia that I was going to Thailand to work on women’s issues, the reaction, spoken or unspoken, among both men and women was universal: “women” and “Thailand” equals prostitution. It was an equation of which I was certainly aware, but it was surprising that everyone I spoke to immediately made this conclusion,

When considering the topic of my second article on “women and work”, I was thus hesitant to write about sex workers in Thailand for fear of further entrenching the stereotype, yet I think it is important to reconsider this issue. It is a topic which has traditionally been approached from a moral angle, prostitution is an absolute evil which of course must be stamped out, if possible. This is the approach which is taken formally by Thai law and the majority of Asian-Pacific countries.

There are many, many sex workers in Thailand. Government figures suggest that at the beginning of 1994 there were about 70,000 prostitutes employed in the sex industry, while non-government estimates have risen as high as 200,000. Whatever the true figure, there is no doubt that many, many Thai women, and foreign women living in Thailand, are employed as sex workers (a term which is often preferred because it lacks the negative bias of “prostitute”) There are also many people employed in the industry who do not work directly as sex workers; such as bar staff, security people, cleaners, etc.

There are those who claim the sex industry is a product of the tourist boom of the 1980s and ’90. Certainly there are sectors of the industry which cater to farangs (men of European appearance) and men from other Asian nations, but a large part of the sex industry in Thailand also caters to local men. I live on a fairly ordinary street in Bangkok, and within a kilometer or so of my home there are perhaps a dozen businesses without foreign language signs in which at least some of the employees are engaged in sex work. In every society throughout time, prostitution has existed. Ideally, there should be no prostitution, and women should be able to adequately support themselves, and often their families by other means. However, neither of these conditions appears likely to be achieved any time soon in any society of which I am aware, either in the developed or the developing world.

Perhaps, it would be better to abandon any sort of moral approach, and consider the situation of these women from merely a labor perspective. Certainly, I am not talking about children – any sex work for children (under 18) is totally unacceptable, nor about women who have been coerced, forced or deceived into becoming sex workers.

Sex workers in Western countries, including in my own Australia, have in recent years become more vocal in standing up for their rights. They argue that if they chose this course, for whatever reason, they should be able to stand up for their working rights in the same way as a factory or clerical worker and their choice should be accepted and respected by women’s organizations.

Instead of simply self-righteously condemning sex work, and often by implication the sex workers, a better approach would be to work to fulfill three conditions: only workers who have been fairly informed about the conditions, risks and financial rewards should enter the industry. Workers should be provided with full information and assistance to protect themselves. And finally they should receive a fair return for their work, i.e. not see the bulk of the money transferred to pimps, madams or others making unreasonable profits from their efforts.

In modern Thailand and most other nations of the world, if these conditions were to be fulfilled, there would certainly be women who would chose, for a number of reasons, to engage in sex work. That I would argue is their right, and they deserve the full protection of women’s organizations in their choice. Of course, we are still a long way from the three conditions discussed above, and many women have entered the sex industry without being informed about the conditions under which they would be working, becoming virtually enslaved by unreasonable financial arrangements.

The answer for these women is to offer them education and training – to allow them to leave the industry if they wish, or otherwise to enable them to assert their rights from within it. The fact which many programs fail to realize is that many of them will choose to stay within sex work – for reasons which may appear strange or “wrong” to an outside observer. But ultimately, if we are going to treat them as adults, they must be allowed to make their own choice. And we must also recognize the sad fact that if these women leave, others, younger, more vulnerable and less informed, will take their place.

Unemployment: A Looming Danger

Unemployment has been arguably the greatest social evil afflicting the Western world over the past 15 to 20 years. Slowly and painfully developed societies have come to realize unemployment rates of up to 10% or more are not some anomaly. Instead they are recognized as the inevitable result of major structural changes in national and international economies as well as significant attitudinal changes among employers and managers. You might ask what does this have to do with Thailand, a nation with a booming economy and an annual growth rate of over 8%? And how can it be a problem specifically for women?

Although the Thai minimum wage of about US$5 per day is low, and many workers do not in fact even receive that, the wage rates in the economies which have attracted recent investor interest (particularly Vietnam, China and Myanmer) are even lower. Already labor-intensive industries are moving away from Thailand into those countries where they are also likely to find an even more submissive work force. The five leading export industries in Thailand – electronics, textiles and clothing, processed food, precious stones and footwear – are all based on this cheap labor of which 70% of the workers are women. This figure is 90% in the food industries. However, agriculture, the major employer in Thailand is in decline, while in the fishing industry many of the low-paid unskilled jobs remain hard to fill. To compete with the lower-wage countries, these industries in Thailand will have to introduce higher levels of technology, which means greater use of capital and less of labor. Thus, fewer jobs, which demand a higher level of technical skills and knowledge, will go to young men with at least a secondary education.

The major export industries, which have all developed up in the last 15-20 years, have traditionally employed women who have only basic primary education, if that. These women have generally remained in the basic level positions they entered almost two decades before. Now with only basic literacy and often poor health after decades of hard work in substandard conditions, they are in a very poor position to be retrained. In spite of many years of labor at low wages, they are being undercut by women in surrounding countries working at even lower rates. These Thai women are further impeded by the lack of a strong financial base.

I wrote in the last dispatch about the structural changes which have already begun to impact on Thai middle-aged women working in labor-intensive industries; such as, textiles and food processing. Despite continuing low wages they are being priced out of work by women in neighboring countries who can be employed for even less. Such changes have greatly affected both men and women in western nations who have traditionally been employed in similar jobs – the new migrants, the poorly educated and the otherwise disadvantage. But the other factor which has led to further unemployment pain in the West is a change in business philosophy and shifts in the relationship between employer and employee.

This can be illustrated by my shock when I first came to Thailand and found that in my local supermarket it was almost impossible to push a trolley around the aisles – not because of overflowing stock, but overflowing staff. The aisles were blocked by staff chatting, doing their hair, having a quiet nap – employees who were not so much slacking off but who were severely underemployed. The medium-size supermarket seemed at any one time to have several dozen staff on hand, and there was no way they could have usefully spent their time working. There were three or four cashiers and an equal number of packers, and the remainder of the staff simply came to work and went home, having done almost nothing in between. A similar staffing level is the norm in every organization with which I have had contact in Thailand.

In Australia, however, a medium-sized supermarket like this would have at most a half a dozen staff on duty at one time – perhaps four cashiers, a manager and a trolley- collector/storeperson, with a few part-timers stacking the shelves in the evenings. Yet 20 or 30 year ago the ratio of goods sold per staff employed would not have been much different in Australia to that of present day Thailand. The dramatic change has come not only in part from a focus by consumers on price, but also from a basic change in business philosophy. Instead of focusing on increasing sales or expanding the business into new areas, business theory has stressed reducing costs to increase profits. Many business costs; such as, rent, electricity and goods for sale are basically fixed, but the great variable is staff. For a small businesses, reducing staff numbers by one has been seen as having a very big positive impact on “the bottom line”, and accountants in larger com- panies have often seen the possibilities for staff cuts by the hundred and savings by the millions.

Combined with this, indeed essential to it, was a change in the understanding of the basic relationship between employer and employee. In the West, the sometimes paternalistic, sometimes simply supportive work environment was until the last decade the norm. A business might face a down turn, but it would have to be in a dire position before it would even think about sacking permanent staff. My understanding is that this is the relationship- which commonly exists today in Thailand, but for how long ?

Business rationalization has been the buzz-word in the West for a long time, and as wages rise in Thailand it can only be a matter of time before the concept catches on here. And the sad thing about rationalization is that once one major company in a field chooses this route, its competitors are forced to follow, in order to compete with the lower prices offered. So a downward spiral begins.

It is often the “service” jobs which are easiest to cut – those jobs in which the output is hard to measure and whose results are not seen in the production of some concrete item. Sales staff, support staff (from secretaries to tea-ladies to cleaners) and lower to middle managers are most at risk, and many of these are women. In Japan, presently many female graduates are finding it impossible to get good jobs which will offer them a future because they would have occupied these sales and support jobs which have been the first to disappear under economic pressure. In Thailand, it is not hard to imagine in a few years the graduates of commercial colleges and high schools may find themselves trained for sales and support jobs which do not exist.

Personally, I must admit to some equivocal feelings about this. From my Western view of work, I find it hard to imagine that any great favors are being done to a person paid to stand around, do nothing and be bored all day, which is what many, many workers in Thailand now appear to do. But unemployment can hardly be a better fate. It has taken Western nations 15 or more years to acknowledge the seriousness of the unemployment problem, and there has not been any serious efforts to tackle the problem.

The fact that the far more developed West has still not found the will or the way to seriously tackle the problem does not bode well for the coming crisis in the Thailand, and other Asian countries. It is likely that women, both the poor, middle-aged unskilled workers and their better educated daughters, who will still lack the skills needed for future jobs, are going to be among the worst hit.


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