Elderly people in this slum community, where small houses huddle alongside a railway in Bangkok’s Klong Toey district, often meet and socialise in the evening. Photo: Peerapon Boonyakiat for HaRDstories
As the 14 May election looms, the push for a comprehensive welfare state in Thailand gains momentum–driven by a coalition of activists, politicians and representatives from some of the country’s largest slums.
Inside one of Bangkok’s oldest slums, 62-year-old Nooken Intachan juggles two jobs. Most days, she wakes early to cook and sell food to her neighbours. Other days, she takes an hour-long bus ride to an office building where she works part time as a cleaner.
Despite her busy life, Nooken also volunteers as a local coordinator for the Four Region Slums Network, representing the poor living in densely populated communities like hers. The group is an outspoken advocate for a livable pension program akin to those in many European countries.
“We want the state to expand the welfare for the elderly,” Nooken said in an interview, taking a day off from her cleaning duties to speak with HaRDstories. “Currently, there are some welfare benefits, but they are not enough. They don’t address the root causes. If the state improves its support for the elderly, it would solve many problems.”
Nooken isn’t alone in the fight. Capitalising on the excitement surrounding the upcoming 14 May election, a group of activists known as “We Fair” has met with over a dozen major political parties in the race, urging them to incorporate aspects of the Western-style welfare state in their policy platforms. This approach rejects token handouts, charities, or the belief that the government has no responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable.
“The government should change its perspective on welfare,” We Fair founder Nitirat Sapsomboon told HaRDstories. “Welfare shouldn’t be about people being left to fend for themselves.”
On the surface, it may seem like a fruitless battle. The cradle-to-grave vision We Fair promotes is comprehensive, encompassing everything from childcare to extensive maternity leave to tax reform. But the Thai state is notoriously reluctant to expand social welfare programs. Yet, significant changes may be on the horizon.
Nitirat notes that leading political parties have embraced key We Fair proposals, particularly for the elderly. He is optimistic that the 14 May vote will generate newfound momentum for a comprehensive welfare state, even if not immediately.
“I see it as a perfect time for changes in how we look at welfare,” Nitirat said.
We Fair began touring politicians’ offices even before the election date was announced. Nitirat said he has met with a total of 14 political parties, representing both the government and opposition benches, including Pheu Thai, Democrat, Move Forward, Bhumjaithai, and Phalang Pracharath, among others.
During each visit, We Fair presented a list of policies and urged the parties to include at least some of them in their election pledges. Nitirat said the response has been encouraging so far.
“Almost every party, particularly the small and mid-sized ones, immediately adopted our proposal as their official policies. Even Phalang Pracharath adopted it,” Nitirat said, referring to a pro-establishment party led by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a figure not typically associated with progressivism.
“But from now on, we’ll have to see how sincere they are in implementing those policies,” he added.
Nitirat has reasons for his scepticism. When Thailand went to the polls four years ago, We Fair mounted a similar campaign and was met with comparable enthusiasm. But the outcome was disappointing: shortly after taking power, the government reneged on its pledges and failed to deliver many of the promised welfare benefits.
“We really thought the [2019 election] would be a historic event where social policies competed against one another. But it’s a pity that the government parties didn’t do what they campaigned for. It was a missed opportunity for our country,” Nitirat said.
Feeling betrayed, Nitirat excluded PM Prayut Chan-o-cha’s United Thai Nation Party from his visits to political parties for this election.
To inform voters, We Fair also published a series of infographics, checklists, and charts detailing where political parties competing in the election stand on welfare and benefits, and how closely they align with the principles of a welfare state.
Welfare for all
At the core of We Fair’s proposals is the concept of “welfare for all,” benefits should be available to everyone, rather than only targeting those living below the government-defined poverty lines.
Nitirat and his colleagues argue that the latter approach places an unnecessary burden on the public, requiring benefit recipients to prove their income through complex bureaucracy, while the assistance provided is meagre compared to rising living costs.
“We don’t want welfare handouts. We want welfare for all,” said Nuchanart Tantong, another activist from the Four Regions Slum Network, who campaigns alongside We Fair. “People shouldn’t have to prove their poverty. Everyone should be eligible for welfare right away.”
For example, there’s the welfare card, often promoted by PM Prayut in his election campaign as the pinnacle of benefit programs. Distributed to about 2.7 million people who meet government-set criteria, it includes monthly subsidies like 300 baht in essential goods—redeemable only at government-affiliated stores—750 baht in transportation, 315 baht in electricity, and 100 baht in water bills.
Eligible individuals must first verify themselves, resulting in complaints about long lines at bank offices.
Nitirat said the idea of welfare for all has precedents. He cited Thailand’s universal healthcare program, which has received international praise since its introduction in 2002 by then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration.
Despite the political turmoil and changing governments in the following two decades, the program remains firmly in place, a testament to its popularity.
“In terms of policy, we already have a welfare state, which is our universal healthcare,” he said. “Before 2002, we almost couldn’t have imagined that. But it did happen, and it did lift many people from poverty… so when people told me that welfare for all can’t possibly happen, I replied that it’s already happening!”
No country for old people
Like the universal healthcare scheme, Thailand’s state monthly pension for the elderly is given out on a ‘for all’ basis. Everyone is eligible, but proponents of welfare reform say the amount is too low.
Rolled out in a ‘ladder system,’ it starts at 600 baht per month for those over 60, climbing to 700 baht for those over 70, 800 baht for those over 80, and 1,000 baht for retirees older than 90.
“That’s 20 baht a day. Of course, it’s not enough to feed oneself,” said Nooken, the resident of the low-come community in Klong Toey. “A serving of food is 20 or 30 baht here, not including rice.”
It’s no surprise that many elderly people in her community, including herself, continue to work well into their retirement years. According to a 2020 study, at least one-third of people over 60 still have to work, mostly in unofficial sectors like part-time or day jobs.
One reason why the pension for the elderly has remained largely unchanged could be Thailand’s ingrained culture of filial duty. Traditionally, the elderly are expected to be taken care of by their children, not the state.
But Nooken and others interviewed for this article said the system is untenable in the present time, when the younger generations themselves are struggling financially, particularly for those living on the edge of poverty lines.
“And what happens to the elderly who have no children to take care of them?” Nuchanart from the Four Regions Slum Network asked. “In today’s economy, even four or five people can’t take care of their mom, because the cost of living keeps rising.”
Nooken knows this firsthand. Her immediate neighbours, she said, are parents in their early 70s who also sell food for a living because their only child has physical disabilities and can’t work to support himself. Nooken herself insists on taking up two jobs even though she has a son, who works as a construction contractor, because he has children of his own to take care of.
“I don’t want to cause any more burden for him,” Nooken said.
Experts warn that the issue of an elderly population living in poverty will worsen as Thailand’s demography continues to grey; by 2030, the country is projected to reach the dreaded status of a Super Aged Society, in which 20 percent of the population is over 65.
To stave off the looming economic strain on the elderly, We Fair proposes raising the state pension to 3,000 baht per month, following discussions with support groups like the Four Regions Slum Network.
Nooken said that the increase would cover just enough necessities like food and utility bills for each month. “The reason why we proposed 3,000 baht is because we already surveyed our communities. We talked to the elderly and we did research. We didn’t come up with the figure out of nowhere.”
The proposal seems to be catching on. Multiple parties have added the promise of a 3,000 baht pension to their platforms, including Move Forward, Thai Sang Thai, Phalang Pracharath, Seri Ruam Thai, and Prachachart.
A welfare state… for whom?
While a hike from 600 to 3,000 baht may seem significant, welfare activists argue that it pales in comparison to the average of 20,000 – 30,000 baht per month pension civil servants receive, with higher-ranking officials receiving even more.
“It’s clear that we already have a sort of welfare state, but it’s the kind that is unequal and unfair,” Nitirat from We Fair said. “The public comes last.”
The stark difference leads some observers to believe that the debate surrounding the welfare spending in Thailand has less to do with money and more to do with ideologies.
“I used to think that it’s an economic question, but actually it’s a philosophical question,” said Sustarum Thammaboosadee, a lecturer at Thammasat University and a longtime proponent for a welfare state. “We have the money, but who do you prioritise when spending that money?”
In fact, one study shows that Thailand spent more on the welfare and benefits for civil servants, both active and retired, and their eligible family members – about 5.2 million of them in total – than the entire budget allocated to the welfare programs of 66.2 million people. The cost of pensions for retired bureaucrats alone also dwarfs that of elderly members of the public like Nooken: 322 billion baht against 87.5 billion.
Sustarum also criticises the seemingly unfettered access to state coffers enjoyed by the armed forces, compared to the usual political foot-dragging when it comes to spending for ordinary citizens.
“Sometimes the Ministry of Defense gets a billion baht worth of budget just by writing four or five pieces of paper, yet it’s so difficult to change anything about the welfare for the public, like increasing pension for the elderly,” the academic said. “Are we going to tolerate this for the next 100 years?”
While We Fair isn’t advocating for a cut in benefits and pension for bureaucrats, the group believes the massive gap in welfare investment between those employed by the state and those who are not should be narrowed.
To offset the spending, Nitirat proposes halting or reducing major military purchases, like the navy’s contentious 36 billion baht deal for submarines from China, implementing a wealth tax, and revamping the national tax systems to optimise revenue collection.
“It’s not like a welfare state can happen tomorrow. It needs to be gradually adjusted,” Nitirat explained. “Spending can increase when there’s more money for it.”
Beyond the polls
Though We Fair has successfully brought the welfare state agenda to the forefront of the May 14 election, there is, of course, the risk that the promises made by political parties will fade into obscurity soon after the vote concludes, as happened four years ago.
“To be blunt, after each election, every party returns to aligning with bureaucrats and big businesses,” Sustarum said. “It’s disheartening that the relationship between political parties and the people only lasts a few months before the election.”
He continued, “We have to learn from the experience in 2019. Many political parties discussed a welfare state, but ultimately it didn’t lead to any changes… So if there’s to be a change, collaboration between different sectors in society is essential.”
As for Nitirat, he plans for his group to work with sympathetic lawmakers post-election, proposing several draft laws to expand welfare coverage for those in need. Under Thai laws, new legislation can be introduced to parliament by as few as 20 MPs.
Nitirat is also looking beyond the upcoming polls: We Fair intends to launch similar campaigns for the Senate election in 2024 and the anticipated effort by parliament to amend the current military-backed constitution.
“I think discussions about the welfare state will continue until next year,” Nitirat said. “We will use every platform, whether it’s the Senate election or the constitution drafting.”
Inside the foetid alleyway where Nooken lives, beneath the shadow of a massive billboard looming over a nearby elevated tollway, the grandmother and activist is determined to ensure her time spent with election hopefuls was worthwhile.
“If there’s any party who breaks its promise to us, we will visit their office,” Nooken said. “We are waiting to see if they live up to their promise. We will keep campaigning. We won’t stop at the election.”
Edited by Fabian Drahmoune
Teeranai Charuvastra is a feature writer at Prachatai English, where he covers politics, freedom of expression, and human rights. He also serves in the Thai Journalists Association as its vice president for Press Freedom and Media Reform.
Peerapon Boonyakiat is a freelance photojournalist based in Bangkok and works for Hong Kong based SOPA Images. He is interested in political stories involving conflict between the people and the government. His work can be found on Instagram @peerapon_boonyakiat.