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Plan to limit pension rolls back 14 years of progress, activists say

Thailand’s pension system is known to be one of the most progressive in the region. But a newly introduced “poverty proof” has drawn sharp criticism from welfare advocates. 

Photo: James Wilson/Thai News Pix
Photo: As Thailand rethinks its progressive pension system, welfare advocates rally for the rights of the elderly on 18 August, 2023. James Wilson/Thai News Pix

BANGKOK — Proponents for welfare reforms protested at government offices on Thursday to decry a new measure that would impose a requirement of “poverty proof” to Thailand’s famously progressive universal pensions for the elderly

The order, issued by the Ministry of Interior last week, said only elderly people on “low or no income” would be eligible for the pension benefits, which start at 600 baht per month. Officials said the policy would apply to those who turn 60 next year, ending the universal-based system that has been in place since 2009. Activists are urging the government to change its mind.

“It’s a major step backward,” Nitirat Sapsomboon, the founder of welfare advocacy group WeFair, said shortly after the protest. “This announcement rolls back 14-15 years of progress.” 

To voice their displeasure at the news, supporters of WeFair and several other groups, including PMove and the Four Region Slums Network, first gathered at the Ministry of Finance, before marching to the Ministry of Interior, and ending their demonstration at the Ministry Of Social Development and Human Security. 

A representative from the social development ministry met with the protesters and received their petition calling for the means test policy to be abandoned. The official, Anukul Peedkaew, struck a conciliatory tone in an address to the activists.

“We will not disappoint the elderly people,” he said, to the applause from the crowd. “You and I have the same stance, which is protecting the rights of the elderly.”

Introduced in 2009 under the Democrat-led administration, the pension payouts are available to any Thai citizen over the age of 59, though civil servants, who have their own monthly pension packages in the tens of thousands of baht, are exempted.

Defending the new policy, government officials have told the media that the payouts should only be reserved for those who prove to be genuinely in need of financial assistance. They also argue the overhaul would save the state millions of baht. It is unclear what steps would be required; the ministry announcement said the matter will be finalised by the national committee on elderly welfare. 

But Nitirat and others argue that a means-testing mechanism would inevitably make many low income earners “slip through the cracks,” and is probably not worth the administrative cost or the hassle involved. 

“We shouldn’t have to prove our poverty – we can’t get any poorer than this!” Thanaporn Wichan, a labour rights activist and former union leader, said through a megaphone to the crowd in front of the interior ministry.

Ahead of May’s election, welfare groups like WeFair were optimistic, anticipating the continuation and even expansion of assistance programs to counter the escalating cost of living. One of their demands, which proved to be so popular that many parties adopted it in their election pledges, is increasing the payout to the elderly to 3,000 baht per month. 

But now, they seem to be witnessing the first major cutback on the national welfare scheme in 14 years. 

Asked whether he’s discouraged by the turn of events, Nitirat said he remains hopeful, not least because expanding benefits for the elderly was a cornerstone policy of many prominent parties.

“I think many political parties who would be in the next government won’t agree with this move,” Nitirat said. “We’re monitoring the situation. Once the new government is formed, we’ll follow up with them about this issue.”