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Jobless and hopeless: Covid-19 wreaks economic devastation

Although Thailand has been lauded for containing the pandemic, its people are still paying a heavy price

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: August 04, 2020 03:39 AM GMT

Updated: August 04, 2020 03:46 AM GMT

Jobless and hopeless: Covid-19 wreaks economic devastation

The 14th century Wat Mahathat temple complex in the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, has reopened to tourists following lockdowns to halt the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP)

More than 800 Thai factory workers in a northern town were greeted with a nasty surprise when they showed up for work on July 31. They found themselves barred from entering, with a sign informing them outside the large factory that they had all been fired.

Adding further insult to injury, the names of workers laid off had simply been printed on A4-sized sheets of paper and pinned up to a board by the gate.

The Body Fashion factory, which is owned by prominent swimwear maker Triumph International in Nakhon Sawan, closed down for three months earlier this year because of the slump in sales owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time the company also laid off 2,000 employees.

Rather than reopen as scheduled on July 31, however, the factory has remained closed, causing more than 800 locals to lose their jobs without any prior notice.

The mass layoffs have been seen by some Thai commentators as another case of a foreign-owned company exploiting low-income workers for their labor without any proper protections. “What does one expect? Yet another foreign-owned company exploiting SE Asians,” a commenter noted.

Body Fashion has cited massive losses in revenue over the past months as a result of the ongoing pandemic, which has battered the global tourism industry.

“Whereas many employers will genuinely be forced to make layoffs, others such as this one will treat their workforce with contempt and merely post names outside,” an observer said. “When employment is again offered, unscrupulous companies will hold all the aces [by offering even lower wages].”

In Thailand’s vital tourism sector, millions of low-income earners have likewise fallen on hard times, with no foreign tourists having been allowed into the country in significant numbers for several months. Millions of locals and migrant workers have lost their jobs as restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues remain closed or languish without customers around Thailand.

Although the Southeast Asian nation has been cited as a global success story in stopping the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus with slightly over 3,300 recorded cases and 58 deaths so far, the pandemic has devastated Thailand’s economy, worsening the hardships of people already eking out a living any which way they could.

Last week the Center for International Trade Studies at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok suggested that Thailand’s trade will plummet this year to 423 billion baht (US$13.45 billion) from 1 trillion baht, with several manufacturing industries that employ millions especially hard hit.

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Thailand’s exports are also expected to contract by nearly 10 percent this year to a level not seen since the global economic crisis of 2009.  In the first half of 2020, the country’s exports dropped by 7.1 percent. In a worst-case scenario, Thai exports could be lower by 20 percent this year over 2019, some experts have warned.

In a report issued last week, Krungthai Bank said it will take two to three years for the Thai economy to recover after the bank expects it to shrink by nearly 9 percent this year. “However, Thailand was in a better position than many countries thanks to its monetary and financial discipline, adaptation and digitalization in the private sector,” the report noted.

Yet low-income earners, who comprise the bulk of the economy, can ill afford to go for months, let alone years, without regular pay in a country with no real safety net programs for the poor. Millions of Thais work in the informal economy where most live hand to mouth on basic salaries. Most of these people have had either no income or hardly any income for months.

“It’s been pretty bad,” a motorcycle taxi driver who ferries people around a central area of Bangkok for a living told a UCA News reporter. “I often sit here all day long waiting for clients. That’s all I do: sit and wait.”

Starvation remains a remote prospect in a country where cheap food is widely available and sold on most streets, yet health experts have warned that many young children in poorer families could end up becoming malnourished, which is likely to endanger their long-term health prospects.

“The current situation is detrimental to the development and growth of young children, as the first six years are crucial for the growth of a child’s brain,” UNICEF Thailand noted in a recent report.

“A lack of nutrition or stimulation in early childhood leads to stunting and delay in developments,” explained Khwanploy Cheechang, a social policy officer with the United Nations agency in Bangkok.

“This pandemic has left millions of people penniless and jobless, yet being out of work and penniless still does not enable parents to register for [a child support] grant which is provided for only the pre-existing recipients of the cash grant and does not include those who have fallen into poverty due to Covid-19 pandemic.”

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