As the minimum wage becomes a hot topic, we speak to Wilaiwan Saetia, 55, about the plight of workers without social security and her personal path to becoming vice-president of the Thai Labor Solidarity Commitee and leader of 14 worker unions in Nakhon Pathom.

I was born in Khon Kaen. I started working after fourth grade because my family, who are farmers, couldn’t afford to send me to school. I first helped my aunt sell khao gaeng [prepared food] in town, before moving to Bangkok to find work.

I was a construction worker at first, then became a factory worker. I haven’t changed jobs ever since. It has been 35 years now. I’ve never changed jobs because I figure that wherever I go, I’ll have to be an employee. I don’t have the education to do something else.

I started being a labor activist in 1981 because my friends, who were involved in the cause, asked me to join. I also wanted to do it because, back then, workers didn’t have any welfare benefits. They faced many hardships, from being fired or getting sick to being injured at work, with no compensation or pension from the employer. There were no laws giving us security in our lives.

Once, my friend’s sister’s legs were broken when she was hit by a car. The hospital didn’t accept her because she had no money. My friend had to run out to sell her gold necklace for money. That wouldn’t have happened if we had social welfare.

Living in poverty is really difficult. You can’t get medical treatment and your relatives get nothing if you die. You don’t get money when you’re sick and can’t go to work. So my friends and I have been working hard to push through a plan to create a social security system.

I participated in a hunger strike in front of parliament. Labor activists were there for three days until the government passed a law that granted the first social security rights for Thai

The prime obstacle in fighting for labor rights is persuading the other side to sacrifice their own benefits. The employers and the people in power, politicians, entrepreneurs and the government, are all on the same side. So it’s quite hard to make them accept our demands.

Social security is meant to provide security for workers when they can’t work. It’s social welfare for the poor. We work and save with the hope that we can spend it when we’re old.

But the Social Security Office spends too much money on PR and study trips abroad. Why did they spend B2.3 billion on computers for the Labor Ministry? Why use SSO funds for this?

The hardest time in my life was when I was listed as a troublemaker for joining the PAD protest. But, in the end, I wasn’t charged with anything.
I work from 8am to 5pm. If I have to go out for union-related duties, I inform my boss. I don’t get paid if I take leave, so I don’t need to worry that they’ll disapprove of what I do.

My wage right now is B257 per day. It’s a little above the minimum wage, which is now B215 in Bangkok and the suburbs. Most of my money goes towards my savings and to my family back home. I’m helping my sister send her kids to school.

I agree with the B300 minimum wage policy but the problem is making it real. We will demand that [the government] make good on their promise and will protest if they don’t.

Wages have always been chasing the cost of living. We’re never ahead. We’ve always had to endure this condition.

People always panic when wages are raised by even 2-5 baht. They think it’s going to raise the cost of living. They don’t focus on the fact that others have gotten richer. Workers never get a piece of that cake. Employers get more money and send their kids to study abroad, but workers spend their money paying their debts at the shops where they buy

Inflation is the government’s problem. They are the ones who have to handle it, no matter by how much minimum wages are raised.

Politicians must remember they work for the people. We hire them with our taxes. If they don’t fulfill their promises, the people will come after them.

I dream of going back home after I retire. I will raise animals and grow vegetables on my family’s land. Just a simple life.


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