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Advocates rally for change in Thailand’s exclusive Social Security board election

Thailand’s first Social Security board election, slated for 24 December, is marred by the exclusion of 1.2 million non-Thai contributors. In response, a Thai migrant worker rights advocate and a disabilities advocate are campaigning for the rights of Myanmar nationals and improved inclusivity.

Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
Cambodian migrant workers take part in a workers rights protest on International Labour Day in Bangkok in 2022. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

BANGKOK – Marking a historic milestone in labour rights, the forthcoming Social Security board election in Thailand allows workers to directly elect their representatives for the first time in three decades. But this landmark event excludes 1.2 million of Thailand’s foreign workers, who are barred from voting or participating as candidates in the election.

Disenfranchised foreign workers

Comprising 21 members, the tripartite board is divided equally among state authorities, employers, and workers, each group holding seven seats. This board is tasked with overseeing the welfare of 23 million workers and managing a substantial fund of 2.4 billion baht (about $68 million), providing advice and supervising budget allocation.

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, contributing at the same rate as Thai nationals.

Yet, 1.2 million non-Thai insured individuals (5.2 percent) are ineligible to vote or stand for election to the board. This includes 948,728 workers from Myanmar, all of whom contribute a portion of their salaries to the fund monthly. The primary criterion for voting and candidacy rights is Thai citizenship, a requirement that disenfranchises these contributing workers.

Same contributions, same benefits?

The social security scheme operates on a sliding scale, with monthly contributions ranging from 83 baht to a maximum of 750 baht ($2 to $21), determined by income level. These contributions are deducted and channelled into the national fund, which is further bolstered by contributions from the government and employers.

Despite their ineligibility to vote or stand for board election, non-Thai insured persons are entitled to the same benefits as Thai citizens. These benefits encompass healthcare coverage, maternity leave compensation, and up to six months of financial support in case of unemployment.

“The election should allow migrant workers to vote because everyone is an equally insured person,” said Khaingmin Lwin, a Myanmar worker in Samutprakarn. “We contribute the same amount to the fund. The only difference is the nationality.” 

He thinks 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.”

Accessing their entitled benefits proves challenging for non-Thai insured individuals, often due to language barriers. A case in point occurred in October 2023, where eight Burmese garment factory workers in Samut Prakan, an industrial region east of Bangkok, were denied their rightful unemployment wages by provincial officers.

The struggle for access

Sirirat Wankam, president of the Workers Union of Spinning & Weaving Industries of Thailand, intervened to assist her eight Burmese colleagues at the same garment factory in claiming their rights. Although some of her Thai colleagues believe that policy decisions should be reserved for Thai citizens, fearing migrant interference in national affairs, Sirirat advocates for migrant representation on the Social Security board to better address their concerns.

Non-Thai insured individuals often face incomplete social security coverage due to misaligned labour policies. For example, when renewing visas in their home countries, gaps in coordination between their new work periods and previous contracts can arise, leading to discontinuities in their social security benefits.

Pensions: A systematic gap

Additionally, the pension system poses challenges for migrant workers. Those over 55, ineligible for Thai work permits, cannot easily access pensions. To do so, they must apply within Thailand and receive payments through Thai or international branches of Thai banks. Although efforts are underway to develop cross-border pension systems, these initiatives remain in early stages.

Taking aim at the flaws

“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 campaigning for a seat on the board, alongside five other Thai human rights advocates. Among them is Nalatporn Krairiksh, the founder of Thailand’s first media outlet dedicated to disability issues, “ThisAble.me”. (Read our profile here)

For progressive-leaning Thais, this election, which attracts the second-largest voter turnout after the general election, represents an opportunity to challenge the military’s influence on national politics. The current Social Security board, appointed by the military regime led by General Prayut Chan-ocha nine years ago, has been a subject of contention.

The pace of change

Progress towards inclusivity in the Social Security board election will likely be gradual. Of the total insured workers, only 945,609, or 4.11 percent, registered to vote, indicating a tepid engagement with the electoral process.

Siwawong emphasises that social security should hinge on employment status, not nationality. Yet, he observes a prevailing misconception among decision-makers who view the election through the lens of national sovereignty. This perspective, he believes, undermines the election regulation’s goal of inclusivity, especially for those living with disabilities and the disadvantaged.

In early 2023, Siwawong and his network took legal action against Thai authorities, challenging the exclusionary nature of the election. They argue for a redefinition of social security as employment-based, rather than nationality-based, to align with the election’s inclusive vision.

Siwawong, representing the interests of non-Thai insured workers, is hopeful about this candidacy in the election. His aim is to bring about real changes from within the board.

“What we want the most,” he asserts, “is an election where every insured person has equal rights.” 

This story was first published on DVD English.