Nicha Wachpanich / Visual Rebellion Myanmar
On Dec. 24, Thailand will host its first social security board election. Close to one million workers from Myanmar, who contribute equally to this multi-million dollar fund, are not allowed to participate. A Thai migrant worker rights advocate is running to represent Myanmar nationals and will be listed as a candidate on Dec. 1.
The social security board election is a historic moment for labor rights in Thailand as it is the first time workers are given the opportunity to directly vote for their representatives in 30 years.
The tripartite board will comprise 21 members. State authorities, employers and workers will each be allocated seven seats. The board will oversee the benefits of 23 million workers and the 2,445,679 million baht ($68 million USD) fund by providing advice and monitoring the use of the budget.
Most migrant workers in Thailand – except for those working in informal sectors such as some parts of the fishing and agriculture industries as well as housekeeping – are required to have social security and contribute at the same rate as workers holding Thai citizenship.
The monthly minimum contribution is 83 baht and not exceeding 750 baht ($2-21 USD), according to income. The amount is deducted and put into the national fund, whose total budget is complemented by the government and the employers.
Non-Thai insured persons are entitled to the same set of benefits, ranging from healthcare costs, compensation fee during maternity leave, to six-months of financial support if unemployed.
However, 1.2 million non-Thai insured persons, including 948,728 workers from Myanmar, cannot vote nor run as candidates for the board. The requirement is to be a Thai citizen.
“The election should allow migrant workers to vote because everyone is an equally insured person. We contribute the same amount to the fund. The only difference is the nationality,” said Khaingmin Lwin, a Myanmar worker in Thailand.
He adds that the way social security is now being handled needs to change. “For migrant workers, it is a system that easily deducts money, but hardly gives access to benefits.”
Non-Thai insured persons face a lot of difficulty to access the benefits they are entitled to, due to language barriers. In October 2023, eight Burmese garment factory workers in Samut Prakan, an industrial area east of Bangkok, were denied their full wages for unemployment which they should have received by the provincial officers.
Sirirat Wankam is president of The Workers Union of Spinning & Weaving Industries of Thailand. She works in the same factory and helped her eight colleagues to claim their benefits.
Some of her peers believe that policymaking should remain in the hands of Thai citizens only, arguing that migrant workers would soon return to their home country and should not interfere in national decision making boards. But Sirirat thinks that having migrant workers on the social security board would better represent their concerns.
Non-Thai insured persons tend to miss the full coverage of social security due to unsynchronised labor-related policies. When they have to return to their home country to renew their visas, the social security board sometimes fails to coordinate their new working period.
“There are still many biases hidden in social security fund management and many benefits do not represent non-Thai insured person’s rights,” said Siwawong Sooktawee, project consultant for the advocacy network Migrant Working Group (MWG).
Siwawong is running for a seat on the social security board, along with seven other Thai human rights advocates, including an activist representing people with disabilities.
To many Thais, this poll, which gathers the largest number of voters only second to the general election, is another way to oppose the military’s grip on national politics. The current social security board was appointed by the military junta, led by General Prayut Chan-ocha, nine years ago.
Eight candidates rally for the social security board election, including Siwawong Sooktawee ( upper left).
The change will be slow. Only 945,609 of insured workers registered for the election, making up 4.11 percent of total insured persons.
Siwawong hopes to win a seat on the social security board to represent non-Thai insured persons. “What we want the most is an election in which every insured person has equal rights.”
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