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No work, no pay: Poor Thais face Covid-19 disaster

With no social security, workers in Thailand's huge informal economy cannot support themselves

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: March 23, 2020 03:15 AM GMT

Updated: March 23, 2020 05:00 AM GMT

No work, no pay: Poor Thais face Covid-19 disaster

A tuk-tuk driver stands by his vehicle at a popular Bangkok tourist site. He rarely has any customers now that the outbreak of Covid-19 has dealt a huge blow to Thailand's tourism industry. (UCA News photo)

Lawai Pornawalai hasn’t contracted Covid-19 but is suffering badly from the effects of the deadly disease.

“I can’t work and so now I can’t support myself and my family,” she laments. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if I can’t get back to work soon.”

Lawai works at a traditional Thai massage parlor in central Bangkok catering to foreign tourists. For the past few days, she has been out of a job, if only temporarily.  

On March 18, all massage parlors, bars, cinemas and other entertainment venues were ordered by Thailand’s government to be closed for at least two weeks around the country.

Four days later, all shopping malls, restaurants, cafes and night markets in Bangkok were also closed until April 12. Locals were asked to stay home and spend time outdoors only if necessary.

The lockdown, which is aimed at stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, has brought a bustling city famed for its nightlife to a near-standstill.

It has also left millions of poor people like Lawai without an income. The personal costs of the economic disruption in Thailand during the ongoing outbreak are expected to fall primarily on low-income earners who live from day to day and have few or no savings.

Millions of Thais work in the country’s large informal economy without any social security or safety nets, so they can ill afford to be out of a job for long.

“If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” says Lawai, who is in her early thirties.

A single mother of two, she earns around 20,000 baht (US$600) a month including tips. She does so by providing foot massage and full-body massage to foreign customers at a parlor near a high-end shopping mall in the commercial heart of the Thai capital.

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“I don’t have much education, so I don’t have many options,” she says.

Lawai sends much of her income back to her aging parents who look after her two children in her hometown in a rural part of northeast Thailand where many locals eke out a meager living by growing rice and other crops.

The money she sends helps pay for medication for her ailing father and for the schooling of her son and daughter. This month, however, she won’t be able to send money home.

“My parents are older and they can’t work so hard [on the farm] anymore,” Lawai says. “They need money from me to support themselves and my children.”

Several other women at the massage parlor are in a similar bind while also facing the dilemma of whether to stay in Bangkok or return home for a while.

A Thai massage parlor in Bangkok stands closed in a citywide lockdown. (UCA News photo) 

Advice goes unheeded

The Thai government has asked migrant workers in Bangkok not to return home in case they should carry the virus back with them. The known number of infections in the country has nearly quadrupled to more than 720 in just a few days and the fear is that the pandemic could spiral out of control in Thailand.

Yet many newly jobless locals have been ignoring such advice, flocking to bus terminals in swarming crowds in the hope of catching a ride back home to the countryside.

“Living in Bangkok is not easy if you don’t have money,” says one of Lawai’s colleagues, a middle-aged woman. “I want to go back home to my village until there’s work again. At least I can spend time with my family.”

Even before the lockdown, many businesses like massage parlors, bars and restaurants were beginning to hurt. The outbreak of the deadly new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in December caused millions of Chinese tourists to cancel their holidays in Thailand.  

Much of Thailand’s informal economy revolves around the lucrative tourism sector, which brought the country around US$60 billion from 39 million visitors last year and accounted for a fifth of national revenue.

Without tourists, millions of locals are facing the prospect of losing their incomes.

“I haven’t had a passenger for two days,” says a tuk-tuk driver who is parked by a popular Buddhist temple near Bangkok’s Grand Palace. “There are very few tourists around right now.”

Yet it isn’t just people in the tourism industry who are feeling the brunt of the global coronavirus crisis.

Somporn Khantong is one of the thousands of motorbike taxi drivers who take commuters to and from work by navigating Bangkok’s congested roads and streets. He, too, hails from a family of farmers in Thailand’s northeastern boondocks. He’s been earning a living in Bangkok as a motorbike taxi driver for years.

His days are usually busy but right now he spends most of his time sitting on a foldable chair by his stand underneath a concrete overpass. With most locals working from home or not at all, his services are rarely required.

He remains stoical about the situation. “We’ve been through tough times before. The big flood was very bad for us, but we’ve recovered from it,” he explains, referring to the deluge that inundated much of Bangkok for weeks on end in 2011. “This won’t last forever.”

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