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Employing the algorithm: Thailand’s new wave of online labour unions

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Peerapon Boonyakiat

A ‘Workers Union’ supporter holds a sign that says “Riders = Workers” during Labour Day demonstrations in Bangkok on 1 May 2022. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

Only a tiny percentage of Thailand’s workforce is organised in labour unions, ranking among the lowest globally. But a new generation of workers is weaving together communities not in meeting halls, but across the internet.

The frustration many Thais feel at work resonated with a simple question: “Why does my boss get to dictate everything?” Watched by more than 300.000 people, the animated explainer by the educational YouTube channel “Pud” struck a chord with Thai millennials. Narrated in a stern yet satirical tone, the clip passionately advocates: “We can limit our bosses’ power and enhance our working conditions by joining the Workers’ Union.” 

Labour unions are not popular in Thailand. Of the nation’s entire working population, only 1.5 percent are trade union members based on recent data from the National Statistics Office and the Department of Labour, a percentage much lower than most other countries. But this number might change soon – at least that’s the declared goal of left-leaning social media influencers like Pud and the Workers’ Union, who show how young Thais are keen to talk about labour rights.

The digital world has opened the door for the rise of various new ‘unions’ from different careers blossoming in Thai online groups: the Workers’ Union, Creative Workers’ Union Thailand, Freedom Riders Union, Medical Workers’ Union – there is even a union for Barista Workers in the hipster coffee town of Chiang Mai. 

These unions might seem like fleeting viral content, but they’re galvanising people into organised movements. Given that more than 72 percent of Thais are active on social media and use it for news and political engagement, it’s become an invaluable tool for labour rights activists.

“Digital organising has become part of modern unions’ strategy,” said Sakdina Chatrakul Na Ayudhya, an independent labour historian. “We spend so much time in the digital world and the Workers’ Union is the very first Thai union making use of the technology.” 

Sakdina observed that this new labour movement wave attracts individuals who traditionally didn’t view themselves as typical ‘workers’, especially the middle class and politically-active youth. Boasting a diverse membership that includes content creators, musicians, app-based riders, and migrant workers, the Workers’ Union currently has nearly 3,000 registered members.

But challenges loom large. The labour movement in Thailand has historically faced many obstacles. In 2023, the International Trade Union Confederation ranked Thailand second-to-last globally for workers’ rights. 

Can this new generation of unionists, armed with screens and keyboards, breathe new life into the labour movement?

 

From ‘Speak’ to Workers’ Union

When Chatchai Pumpuang worked in advertising, he felt the grind all too personally — the long nights without extra pay, a staple of office life portrayed in his now-viral clip. Today he helms the ‘vox-style’ platform “Pud” (meaning ‘Speak’ in Thai), which hit a raw nerve among young Thais who took to the streets in 2020 demanding sweeping reforms. 

Driven by a growing discontent with the powerful influence of the military and monarchy, the protests also shone a light on wider societal concerns, ranging from welfare and gender equality to labour rights.

When the chants for democracy first echoed through the streets, Chatchai joined his middle-class peers at the protests, soon releasing that his country’s political and economic struggles are two sides of the same coin.

“If we finally get a democratic government but still remain suppressed in our workplace, are we truly free?” Chatchai poses this question, having left his advertising role to co-found Pud – a media venture where every team member’s paycheck looks the same.

It’s a nod to the growing interest in “workplace democracy,” which champions the integration of democratic principles, from voting, participatory decision-making to engaging in dialogues, into everyday work environments.

Chatchai sees a clear link between the challenges in the political arena and those in workplaces. But there’s a disconnect: many in the middle-class don’t see themselves as ‘workers’. This could well be a reflection of Thailand’s education system where labour rights and unions find only passing mentions. May Day, along with the general labour movement, is often perceived as exclusive to blue-collar workers.

Chatchai saw this as an opportunity: He believes there’s potential to mobilise those who don’t reckon with the label ‘workers.’ In 2021, he and his friends established the Workers’ Union – intentionally avoiding the orthodox term ‘labourer’ in Thai to be as inclusive as possible.

Thailand’s first online-based union signals a fresh chapter in its labour movement. To Sakdina, the labour historian, it’s reminiscent of 1973 when students and their allies toppled a military junta, championing democracy. This unity among students, workers, and farmers later resulted in an unmatched rise in Thai strikes.

“History has taught us that the most powerful people’s movements emerge when workers, university students and farmers join hands,” Sakdina said. “When the 99 percent unite, change can happen.” 

Unite online

As the pandemic crept into 2021 and early 2022, Thailand’s entertainment venues shuttered for months, taking with it musicians’ gigs. Virtually overnight, Mongkol Samueban, a 34-year-old drummer, found himself grappling with the sudden silencing of his craft. 

But Mongkol was not one to just sit around. Alongside other musicians, he staged a concert outside Bangkok’s Government House in late 2021, demanding the reopening of the concert venues and financial support for affected workers. Among the crowd, he struck a chord with Chatchai and other union allies, leading him to establish the “Nightlife Workers,” a dynamic offshoot of the Workers’ Union.

The Workers’ Union emerged from a Facebook group, using digital tools for member recruitment and fee collection. While technology aids its expansion, the union underscores the importance of in-person meetings to build connections among its members. An open chat serves as a channel for reporting labour violations and offering consultations.

Operating the union in the digital sphere empowers members to participate as per their individual ability, breaking away from the conventional hierarchical models. This approach mirrors international labour unions’ recent turn towards digital platforms, especially during the pandemic when traditional mass gatherings were off the table, according to a 2021 study by the non-profit Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

“For the workers and unions, when the option for physical collective action is taken away, we need to support other forms of organising and expressing solidarity. […] Finding creative methods for solidarity can help in the long term,” Kate Lappin of Public Services International noted in the study.

The Workers’ Union, despite its name and growing membership, is yet to gain official recognition under the stringent Thai regulations. These laws limit union formation to workers of the same employer or industry, a rule that offers specialised legal protections but also fragments worker unity. Migrant and informal workers find themselves on the fringes, without the legal framework to form their own unions.

In 2021, Thailand boasted 1,432 registered labour unions, yet none catered to a general workers’ audience – a void the Workers’ Union is eager to fill.

The main union is bolstered by small breakout groups, facilitating tailored discussions for members with similar job conditions. The Nightlife Workers, now a 50-member strong cohort, have initiated a relief fund and pooled musical instruments to support those in financial straits.

Mongkol, a talented musician, found solace and support in the Workers’ Union. “We lean on each other’s strengths. I’m a musician – legal jargon isn’t my forte. But in our circle, we have people who can navigate that world effortlessly. I make music for our protests, they articulate our stand,” he said, emphasising the collaborative spirit within the union.

Digital paradox

Building unions in the digital world offers immense opportunities but it’s not without its challenges. While the internet bridges geographical divides, it amplifies others; unequal access to the internet is still a reality in Thailand, and the threat of cyberbullying is ever-present.

Unukul Rachakuna, a founding member of the Freedom Rider Union – an unregistered coalition of platform riders formed in 2021 and allied with the Workers’ Union – witnessed firsthand the double-edged nature of social media. 

Gig and platform workers who are powering the services of companies like Grab, Foodpanda, and Lalamove are not recognised as employees or workers under Thai labour law, putting them in a precarious situation. 

Unsettled by their working conditions, Unukul, a 31-year-old rider advocate, connected with similarly frustrated riders through a chat group on a prominent messaging app. As nearly 60 platform workers joined, sharing their mutual grievances, an account named ‘holyshit’ abruptly joined and expelled every participant from the chat, silencing their nascent dialogue.

Aware of the risk of online harassment, the Freedom Rider Union adapted by moving to a different chat format that moderated user engagement. Not stopping there, they harnessed the reach of TikTok to broadcast their message. A 15-second clip, titled ‘How the company tricks and traps riders’, amassed over a million views, testifying to the widespread public interest.

Their digital efforts, though largely supported, have faced backlash. In an instance in July 2021, the #boycottFoodPanda campaign made headlines. It started after the company dismissed a rider for his involvement in pro-democracy protests, ensuing a heated online confrontation between supporters of the movement and their conservative adversaries.

The clash represents only a small part of the ongoing debate within Thailand’s labour movement fueled by persistent divisions stemming from deep-rooted political differences. The nation is nearly split between progressive and conservative forces, and the emerging online-based unions mirror this existing divide.

“Social media algorithms tend to show us what we’re interested in, trapping us in ‘echo chambers’,” said Dr. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri from the Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University in an interview on digital politics. “These online spaces are filled with people who share similar views, creating a bubble where contrasting ideas are rare. When opposing views do break through, they’re often not welcomed, leading to a lack of diverse conversations.”

Recent May Day demonstrations highlighted the rift between different factions within the labour movement. The youthful Workers’ Union took to the streets alongside migrant workers, calling for enhanced labour rights and an end to authoritarianism. This passionate demonstration led to charges for Chatchai and others, as local police claimed they weren’t notified beforehand. In contrast, traditional unions chose a different path, opting for an apolitical stance and working in tandem with authorities. 

From click to collective calls

More than once, the platform riders have turned off their apps in an act of quiet resistance. They hoped to force negotiations with the companies to improve their working conditions. But these digital strikes have so far been ineffective. 

In Thailand, strikes are rare and unfamiliar to many workers. This is a reality, not from lack of grievance, but because the legal framework for such actions is ambiguous. Since joining the International Labour Organization in 1919, the nation has yet to ratify critical conventions that protect workers’ rights to organise and strike.

Unukul points out that riders aren’t the only cog in the platform’s machine – restaurants and consumers play a crucial role too. “To instigate real change, we must rally everyone. Imagine the impact if customers stop ordering, riders halt deliveries, and restaurants quit the apps,” he said.

Workers in the film industry have shown how to confront exhaustive working conditions without going on strike. In 2022, the Creative Workers Union ran a successful social media campaign to direct public attention to their debilitating 12-16-hour shifts. They argued that these gruelling hours, a norm to curb production costs, often compromise safety and wellbeing, leading to distressing incidents, including accidental deaths.

Amidst the buzz of new film and TV releases, the campaign’s voice found resonance. It stirred up a storm of reactions, making enough noise to get work hours trimmed down at some studios.

As the Workers’ Union expands its membership base, it aims to establish a strong foundation in the digital realm to enable bolder bargaining moves in the future. Many of Thailand’s young unionists dream of something the country has never seen before: a ‘general strike’ that could echo the collective might of every worker.

“For us, an online union is not the end but the beginning,” said a young member of the Workers’ Union, who preferred not be named. Hidden within the anonymity of the digital space, he finds the freedom to engage, away from the scrutiny of employers. “We’re focused on bringing our online strength to the offline world. We are patient; our power is growing.

 

Edited by Fabian Drahmoune

Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist covering stories from a rights-based and human-interest perspective. She previously worked with a local environmental news agency under Thai Society of Environmental Journalists. 

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. 

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