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Thanaporn Wichan: The dismissed union leader who refuses to back down

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Peerapon Boonyakiat

Labour activist Thanaporn Wichan sits in a small office near her house in Saraburi province, where she provides advice on labour rights to workers and organises various activities for the movement. Photo: Peerapon Boonyakiat for HaRDstories

Unfairly let go from her job, her activism didn’t stop at the office door. She’s now a familiar sight at the rallies of Thailand’s democracy movement.

Sitting still in an empty office at a shuttered factory was the only thing left to do for Thanaporn Wichan as a company employee. She had worked in several positions, including her latest in Quality Control (QC), at the same building material company in Saraburi, several hours north of Bangkok, for 27 years. But Thanaporn has also been a long-time union leader who fought and won many battles for workers’ rights against the company. And she suspects that it was this additional volunteer position at the company’s trade union that led her to this predicament. The company – which produces and sells building materials in Thailand and internationally – claimed to face financial difficulties and shut down its Saraburi plant after many years of operation.

When the company offered to move all staff to another plant, 51-year-old Thanaporn, who had no family to take care of, was willing to go. But her relocation request was turned down. She became the only employee left at the non-operational factory with only the security guard as a companion.

Between November 2019 and August 2020, Thanaporn continued to go to work everyday as the QC officer at the empty factory until she was finally fired from her position ten months later.

With a good understanding of her legal rights, Thanaporn filed a lawsuit against her employer for unfair dismissal. The company explained to the court that they already subcontracted the position to someone else in order to cut costs and refused to reinstate her. The labour court ruled in Thanaporn’s favour, arguing that economic loss is a natural part of doing business and not a sufficient reason for dismissal.

The court ordered the company to pay Thanaporn approximately 250,000 baht (7,200 USD) with interest. Although it was not confirmed if her union activism influenced the company’s decision to dismiss her, Thanaporn believes it did.

“They stopped hiring me because they think the trade union is the enemy,” said Thanaporn, “The employees listen to the union, not to the company.”

Every year the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union federation, monitors labour violations and rates countries based on their respect for working rights. In 2022 and 2023, Thailand scored the second lowest score, which translates to “no guarantee of rights”.

Since becoming unemployed, Thanaporn has become a familiar face in Thailand’s recent pro-democracy street protests in Bangkok. She travels between her hometown of Saraburi not only to take part in demonstrations, but to also visit court hearings and support other workers confronting rights violations.

Labour lessons down the factory belt

Born into a farming family, Thanaporn turned down a life in the field to work in a factory in Saraburi. An inquisitive teenager she longed for something different.

At 16, her first job was in a chicken factory. Dressed in a white gown, her task was to slaughter chickens with a knife as they moved along the conveyor belt. It was here she first encountered the many challenges workers faced, particularly with issues of unfair wages.

In 1990, Thailand had no labour protection law to oversee work agreements between employers and their employees. When the chicken factory raised the workers’ hourly wage, employees received different raises – and rather low increases on top of that. This lesson led Thanaporn to her first hand-on exercise of worker power: strike.

One day, just after the bell rang to begin the production line, a worker struck the knife sharpener thrice as a signal. All the workers walked out of the factory, leaving chickens piling up on the still-running belt. The strike was successful, and their demands were met.

Among the ten workers who planned the strike during lunch, Thanaporn drew the managers’ attention as her factory colleagues developed a sense of their negotiating power. But unfamiliar with the pressure, she ended up quitting the job, and went to work at the building materials factory, where she stayed for nearly three decades. 

At this factory, Thanaporn learned about labour unions – organised groups advocating for workers’ rights and interests. In 1995, during one of Saraburi’s largest strikes, nearly 5,000 workers from affiliated companies marched 120 km south to Bangkok’s Ministry of Labour. Known as the Alasko protest (named after the three companies involved) it brought in better benefits and made Thanaporn realise quitting was not the only option, but that being part of a union could secure your rights.

“I used to think that the labour unions were intimidating, like a place for radicals and inciters,” recalled Thanaporn, sitting in a small office where she turned part of her family property into a new union headquarter. “Until I experienced how the company could pull tricks to pressure the workers, I realised that I could not let them do this.”

Officially unionised

Drawing inspiration from the Alasko protest’s success, Thanaporn became a founding member of the trade union at the building materials company in 1998 with an office inside the factory plant.

With the union in place, they could systematically negotiate improved working conditions with their employer instead of addressing issues piecemeal: from being paid daily wages, the union successfully pushed for monthly contracts which allowed them to have monthly wages with weekend breaks. Another triumph was transitioning long-term outsourced staff to full-time positions – addressing the unequal treatment for workers performing identical roles but under different contract terms. 

“The workers want good living conditions, which might challenge the employer’s aim for highest profit,” said Thanaporn. “So we need bargaining power and the power we have is within our crowd, people who create the values for the company.” 

But the unionist recognised the need for broader solutions than a single-factory union. A few years after establishing the trade union, it evolved into a sectoral entity, incorporating workers from across the building materials industry and welcoming non-Thai migrant workers.

Thai labour law prohibits migrant workers from setting up their own unions, but they can be members of existing ones. Most of the migrant workers in Thailand are Burmese and Cambodian, representing up to three million people in the workforce. Due to concerns about job security, most opt to advocate discreetly, aligning with unions spearheaded by Thai labour activists.

Defanging unionists

While the union she belonged to still exists in name, it is not as active as before. The financial strain the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted on companies thinned the ranks of many unions. Boonsom Tavichit, a union leader in Saraburi province and Thanaporn’s comrade since the Alakso protest, was let go from another company in 2019.

“You may say COVID has become an opportunity for employers to weaken the labour unions. With the unpredictable global economic recession, the labour court usually rules the dismissal cases as reasonable,” explained Pornnarai Tuiyakai, the lawyer who foresaw Thanaporn’s case. “Surely workers who are part of unions are usually the first target.”

The court ordered the company to reinstate Boonsom, but Thanaporn was not that lucky.

After being dismissed, Thanaporn felt even more solidarity with workers in similar situations. She dedicated her free time to providing legal advice and support to those facing rights violations. On a sweltering day in June 2023, Thanaporn stood before nearly hundred garment factory women at the Provincial Labour Protection and Welfare Office in the factory-dense town of Samut Prakan. Many were in their 50s, and the hats they wore could not mask their evident concerns.

Working in a textile factory, the company had halted production in the past few months citing significant pandemic-related debt. Workers were only paid 25 percent of their usual salary, leaving them uncertain about their future. Struggling to make ends meet, many could not afford months without pay and ultimately resigned. 

The garment workers did not have a union, but as Thanaporn told the crowd “Don’t abandon the concept of collective gathering, it does not mean that without operating a factory or union, you can’t gather.” 

In a meeting with the Human Resources staff representing the factory owner, the veteran unionist adopted a calmer tone. Recognising that the factory could not afford to restart production or pay compensations, she proposed a solution: the factory would terminate worker contracts, and the government would provide temporary financial support to the affected employees.

Despite having the Labour Protection office in every province, the legal process is complicated for general workers and they usually reach out to people like Thanaporn who are familiar with the legal process and who are not scared to voice concerns. 

“She just drives right from Saraburi to here and drives back each time,” commented a 48-year female garment factory worker who asked not to be named. “She doesn’t care if it is tiring. As long as we want to fight, she will support us all along.”

Freedom of association

The day for Thanaporn to retire from fighting for labour rights is not coming any time soon.

She has no plan to apply for a new job now as her dismissal case is still hanging in the court. Citing their conflicts, the Courts of First Instance and the Courts of Appeal viewed that Thanaporn and her employer could no longer work together. But Thanaporn does not agree because she believes having a labour union in a company is nothing frightening but fundamental. 

Determined to be reinstated and to lift Thailand’s legal standard on unfair dismissals, Thanaporn appealed to the Supreme Court in early 2023.

While waiting for the court ruling she remains busy and has become a familiar face in Thailand’s pro-democracy protests in the past few years against the military-backed government.

The movement, initially led by students, expanded to become a stage to voice many social issues. In August 2020, in front of hundreds of people she gave a speech about her unfair dismissal experience which drew her into the discussion with young people who were keen on changing the country for the better. Together, they formed the Workers’ Union, a new liberal-leaning union for workers from different backgrounds. Today, Thailand does not have any active general union, but the Workers’ Union aims to become one.

With the backdrop of battles between conservatives and progressives, Thanaporn herself has faced criticism by more conservative trade unionists for taking sides in politics. But she is adamant that labour unions should always side with democracy. 

For her, being part of a democratic society and a labour union share the same fundamental values: whether you are able to gather and speak out when your rights are violated.

“Paying the union fees is the same thing as paying tax. As a member of the community, we all expect our money to be distributed fairly and to be part of the decision-making,” said the defiant unionist “Labour union and democracy – they are basically based on the same principles.” 

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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