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Life lesson: Thai teachers are learning how to unionise

A group of educators are stepping into a classroom of a different kind – one that champions the power of collective bargaining, with the vision of establishing Thailand’s first teachers union.
Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
Members of the Workers Union take part in a demonstration in central Bangkok on International Labour Day, on 1 May 2022. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

BANGKOK — This weekend, a workshop is set to familiarise a diverse group of educators – from highschool teachers and college professors to private tutors – with the concept of collective bargaining by forming a labour union. 

The two-day session, which runs from 26 to 27 August, will cover basic principles of bargaining power, organising a union, and other labour rights issues. However, the road to a working union is complicated by the lack of legal protection and widespread awareness among the teachers themselves. 

One key organiser, a representative from a network of school teachers that campaigns for better welfare and education reform, said he hopes the event will at least inspire his fellow teachers to think about their rights to organise. 

“When we talk about labour unions, people like to think of labourers in factories,” Tanawat Suwannapan, who runs the group “Teachers Want to Teach,” told HaRDstories in an interview. “But in many countries, teachers have unions, and they have bargaining power.” 

Tanawat’s assessment echoes the observations of other labour rights advocates who underscore the absence of unions in many key white collar professions in Thailand, like media workers

“We don’t have any power to negotiate with people who make the policies. We have to simply follow orders,” said Tanawat, who also works as a public school teacher himself. “If we don’t organise ourselves, we won’t have any power to negotiate. It’s a problem that happens to many occupations, not just education.” 

The workshop is part of a larger program held by Workers’ Union, an umbrella group of labour rights and unionisation advocates, with funding from German non-profit Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Similar sessions have been, or are planned to be, conducted for food delivery riders, healthcare workers, and nightlife musicians.

An event poster said teachers, school staff, lecturers, university office staff, academics, tutors and students are welcomed to register, though the participant number will be capped at 20. The first day is dedicated to understanding concepts of “workers” and unions, while the second day will touch on techniques for “campaigning, organising and collective bargaining.”

 

Members of the Workers Union take part in a demonstration in central Bangkok on International Labour Day, on 1 May 2022. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

Wanted: teachers for 4,000 baht a month

The woes that come with the career of school teachers are well known in Thailand. Apart from teaching multiple classes, teachers are expected to file complex bureaucratic paperwork, fix broken pipes or lighting equipment, and even spend certain nights at schools as security guards. Social media is rife with indignation over the paltry salaries offered to teachers; one school advertised a monthly pay as low as 3,800 baht.

While there’s a group called “Teachers Union of Thailand,” which often calls for better pay and benefits for school teachers nationwide, it’s registered as an organisation within the Ministry of Education and does not function as an independent labour union, Tanawat said. 

“They’re a teacher advocate group who’s been fighting on behalf of other teachers for many years,” he said. “But their structure is still not the same as a teachers union that operates in other countries. We don’t have such a thing yet in Thailand.” 

The law is a big part of that absence. Section 4 of the Labour Relations Act of 1975, a landmark law that guarantees the rights to unionise in Thailand, explicitly exempts government workers from its protection. The term is usually interpreted to mean public school teachers, all of whom are technically employed by the Ministry of Education. 

Many education workers are not even aware of the need to unionise or negotiate with the authorities in the first place; Tanawat said he hopes the workshop this weekend will address that. 

“In the field of education, very few people know about unionising. They think it’s not related to them. That’s why we have to start somewhere,” he said. “I hope that teachers and academics who experience similar problems will get to meet one another, find a common vision, and try to figure out how to solve these issues. Perhaps we’ll come up with some solutions.”

The teacher added, “We have to gradually spread the understanding.”