Compiled by Ed Shepherd
|Population ||7.7 million (1905) | 60.0 million (1996) | 61.7 million (1999) |
|Labour Force ||32.7 million (1996) | 37 million (1998) |
|GDP (1999) ||4.7 trillion baht |
|GDP by Sector ||agriculture - 12% | industry - 39% | services - 49% (1997 estimate) |
|Inflation Rate ||5.7% (1996) | 2.4% (1999) |
|Balance of Payments ||172.7 million baht surplus (1999) |
|Foreign Debt ||US$90.8 (1996) | US$90.0 (1999) |
|Exchange Rate/US$ ||25.34 baht (1996) | 56 baht (Jan 1998) | 45.15 baht (2001) |
|Economic Growth ||5.5% (1996) | 4% (1999) |
|GDP per Capita ||US$3,024 (1996) | US$1,600 (1999) |
|Population: aged 0 - 14 ||24% (7,386,231 M | 7,107,010 F) |
|Population: aged 15 - 64 ||70% (21,102,363 M | 21,714,411 F) |
|Population: aged 65 plus ||6% (1,726,043 M | 2,194,816 F) |
|Population below Poverty Line ||12.5% (1998 estimate) |
|Infant Mortality Rate ||31.5 / 1,000 births (2000 estimate) |
|Infant Mortality Rate |
|7.3 / 1,000 births |
|Infant Mortality Rate |
|3.9 / 1,000 births |
|Literacy (age 15 and over, can read and write) ||93.7% (1995 estimate) | 91.6% female | 96% male |
|No. of Phone Lines ||5.2 million (1999 state-run company only) |
|Phone Waiting List ||419,527 (1999) |
|No. of Mobile Phone ||2.3 million (1998) |
|Televisions ||15.19 million (1997) |
|Land Use (1993 estimate) ||arable 34% | woodland 26% | crops 6% | pasture 2% | other 32% |
- 1932 - Military revolt ended absolute monarchy marking modernisation for Siam when constitutional monarchy was declared on June 27.
- 1936 - Siam allied with war-like Japan, ripping up all treaties with foreign nations in November.
- 1937 - The government became a virtual dictatorship.
- 1938 - The country’s official name changed from Siam (originally Sayam) to Thailand.
- 1941 - 8 December, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour; within hours Thailand agreed to let Japan’s army across to Malaya.
- 1942 - 25 January, Thailand declared war on the United States and Great Britain.
- 1944 - July, pro-Japanese government overthrown.
- 1946 - June, King Ananda murdered. December, Thailand became United Nations’ 55th member.
- 1950 - May, Rama IX (present king) crowned. Government sent 4,000 soldiers to back the USA in the Korean War.
- 1950s - Troubled political times. Remarkable economic growth funded by the USA.
- 1958 - All political rights suspended.
- 1964-5 - US tested chemical weapons including Agent Orange (19 million gallons dropped on Vietnam) in Pran Buri and tourist resort Bo Fai.
- 1967 - First municipal elections in a decade.
- 1968 - Permanent constitution declared.
- 1969 - Economy boomed with US investment. But growing gap between rich and poor caused discontent among Muslim and other minorities.
- 1971 - Economy in decline - military government installed in November. Abolished the constitution and dissolved parliament.
- 1975 - Labour Relations Act declared.
- 1976 - Massacre of students at Thammasat University. Led to the October Uprising which ended a military regime. The purpose of the Uprising was to establish independent trade unions which now became legal.
Thailand is bordered by Burma to the north and west, by Laos to the north-east, by Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand to the south-east, by Malaysia to the south, and by the Andaman Sea to the south-west.
The total area of Thailand is 513,115 sq km (198,114 sq mi); the coastline is 3,219 km long, making fishing a key industry.
Thailand is divided into 73 provinces, called changwads.
The government is headed by a prime minister, the country’s chief executive official in theory. In practice high-level military officers play a major role in government.
Main natural resources are tin, rubber, natural gas, tungsten, tantalum, timber, lead, fish, gypsum, lignite, fluorite, and arable land.
Two years of military service is compulsory for men 21 to 30 years old. In 1997 the armed forces included an army of 150,000 troops (including 80,000 conscripts), an air force of 43,000, and a navy of 73,000.
Buddhism is the most popular religion. Its ‘Supreme Patriarch’ (head) is a member of the royal family.
The 1997 Constitution
The military has always interfered in Thai politics. The last direct intervention was in 1991 when the army staged a coup. But millions of people objected, as it occurred just when sections of the population was becoming more politically aware, and riots ensued. One union leader disappeared. After the coup some labour leaders were co-opted by the mafia and corrupt politicians.
In May 1992 soldiers shot dead 44 unarmed demonstrators in a large popular march against army interference in politics. The shootings shocked Thailand, and galvanised democrats to push for more consultation and involvement in government.
The resulting 1997 Constitution is hailed as Thailand’s best yet, increasing governmental transparency and accountability. It supposedly does this by removing key tasks from central government and installing them in ‘independent’ state institutions, including courts which monitor government at all levels. Some argue it proved its value by the unprecedented investigation for corruption into Thailand’s richest man, telecom tycoon, and 2001 new prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. But it is too soon to tell how effective the Constitution is.
The right to vote is universal and compulsory for all over 18 years old.
Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 7 and 15, but some rural areas lack schools. The education system includes six-year elementary and five- or six-year secondary schools, as well as universities, military academies, and teacher-training institutes.
Total personnel in 1996 was 254,000. The army had 59.1 percent, navy 25.2 percent, and the air force 15.7 percent.
Military expenditure was 2.5 percent of GDP in 1995, while per capita expenditure on the military was US$68.
Thailand contributed one of the largest ASEAN contingents to join the Australian-led Interfet force in East Timor in 1999.
US military dominance in Asia rests on six security treaties in the region: Japan (1951), South Korea (1953), Australia (1951), the Philippines (1951), Thailand (1954), and the Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau (1986).
Textiles and garments, electronic goods (especially semiconductors), precious stones and jewellery, rice, rubber, cassava, sugar, prawns.
Petroleum and petroleum products, machinery, chemicals, iron and steel, vehicles and transport equipment.
Major Trading Partners
Japan, United States, Singapore, Germany, Hong Kong Thailand’s mostly market economy is based largely on services, light industries, and agriculture.
While manufacturing accounts for 25 percent of GDP, it only employs ten percent of the work force, mostly in light industries near Bangkok. Factories are typically small and process domestic raw materials into clothing, canned goods, electrical circuits, beer, refined sugar, cement, chemicals, and motorcycles.
Electrical power is generated from imported and domestic fuels; about one-tenth is hydroelectric.
Attempting Economic Growth
Thailand was a key US military supply route in World War Two. Today, according to John Pilger it is the most important Western-backed corridor for the drugs trade. The value and economic effects of drugs are not public knowledge.
Thailand has the second largest economy in SE Asia after Singapore.
After World War Two Thailand opted for rapid industrialisation taking huge World Bank loans to develop the infrastructure and economy using import substitution, an economic model of development which promotes and protects local production, while creating barriers to imports.
But the import substitution strategy was failing by the 1980s as the economy slowed. Bankruptcies reached catastrophic proportions - 27 percent by 1985, causing 100,000 redundancies.
Import substitution switched to export oriented growth model, perhaps sowing the seeds which led to the economic crash in 1997 - Thailand was the first country to suffer.
The export led economic growth of the 1980s attracted huge amounts of private capital from transnational companies, particularly from Japan, where labour costs were making Japan less competitive. Economic ‘experts’ believed that reducing state regulation over private enterprise would create prosperity.
Between 1985 and 1990 foreign direct investment exploded from US$178 million to $2.5 billion. Under the policy change from import substitution to export-led growth, banks increased lending rates from low interest to high, attracting new investors. The new policy also included pegging the baht to the US dollar at just over 25:1, and economic liberalisation.
Much of the new money came from Japan’s labour intensive sector which was suffering after the 1985 Plaza Accord, a device to help the USA’s trade deficit.
Thailand’s inward investment lifted the mid-1980s economy out of recession. It created record growth from 1985 to 1995, averaging almost nine percent a year; investment also from South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
In the 1990s state control over foreign exchange virtually disappeared. Risky loans became routine for bankers.
But it was unsustainable. Spiralling foreign debt, and ultimate failure of export led growth, frightened speculators into taking money out of Thailand.
In May 1997 the Bank of Thailand spent US$10 billion to support the collapsing baht and introduced exchange controls. In the crisis an eight-party coalition was necessary to form a government; certain conditions on the IMF loan were relaxed. Although economic problems and austerity policies continued into 1998, most exchange controls were lifted in January 1998.
In June 1997 the finance minister resigned; on 2 July the Bank abandoned the baht’s US-pegged exchange rate. Its value promptly fell; the Bank chairman resigned.
From floating the baht in July, by December its value fell over 100 percent against the dollar, while stock market value halved from an already low 800 points. Accountants Pricewaterhouse-Coopers estimated bad debts by the hard-hit Krung Thai bank at 84 percent.
A November 1997 issue of Far Eastern Economic Review said, 'When the Bank of Thailand recently moved to prosecute 40 executives from now-defunct finance companies, the bank governor Chatumongkol Sonakul acknowledged ruefully that many were members of his own social circle. ‘Five of the 40 are in my golf club; two are relatives; and 10 more, we have dinner with quite often.’
With a foreign debt of over $45 billion due, Thailand was effectively bankrupt.
In August 1997 an IMF rescue package worth $17.2 billion was announced. In October the new finance minister resigned, followed in November by the prime minister and the cabinet amid mass demonstrations in Bangkok.
At the IMF’s insistence, 56 financial firms were shut down, putting 50,000 well-paid people out of work.
At the end of 1997 after the King made clear that being an ‘Asian tiger’ was less important than self-sufficiency in stabilising Thailand, the IMF’s role began to be seen in a different light - no longer a helping hand, rather one that helped its US backers to infiltrate the economy.
In latter 1997, construction projects stopped work and thousands more became jobless. By the year’s end, unemployment drove about 300,000 migrants home to their villages. Three million workers (ten percent of the labour force) had no income by 1998.
The baht reached its lowest rate of 56 to the dollar in January 1998, when the economy contracted by 10 percent.
Some economists say the economy grew by around four percent in 1999, with a similar estimate for 2000. But others claim it is not recovering at all.
In 1999, a pessimistic Lynn Exton of Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong said, Without proper resolution of the [bad debt] problem, we could see another banking crisis in the next five or six years.
Government statistics said that by February 1998, 80,000 workers had been sacked since mid-1997; this was a massive underestimation.
First to suffer were non-Thai migrants. In January 1998, the government announced repatriation for a million migrant workers, mostly Burmese.
Malaise set in throughout the Thai workforce. Even those who managed to keep a job were beset by gloom, and friends and relatives who needed cash. No more job-hopping; as depression in. Suicides doubled; 12 Thais killed themselves every day in January 1998. In one survey, 17 percent said they were considering suicide.
I crossed the border into Thailand [from Burma]. Here the future is laid out like an Asian Silent Spring: birdless, treeless, jerry-built, polluted, the traffic policemen in their face masks, the tourists in their deodorised rooms, the rich in their Mercedes, the poor in their fire-risk factories and their rubbish vats, the economy at the mercy of speculators.
John Pilger, Hidden Agendas
US foreign policy promotes incorporating labour standards into international trade agreements. This is a contentious issue, though those for and against do not completely follow a North/South divide. However it seems most workers and governments in the South are opposed to the policy, interpreting it as essentially protectionist. But the US can exert pressure on governments without a trade agreement by threats to break contracts or fail to renew existing ones. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review:
Faced with a threat from the United States to withdraw trade privileges, the Thai parliament in mid-February  passed the State Enterprise Labour Relations Act. This reinstates the right of workers in state-owned enterprises to form unions and allows them to bargain collectively. So state-enterprise workers-who number more than 330,000, or nearly eight percent of the manufacturing labour force - now have the legal mechanisms to make demands on management and government (workers at private companies already had the right to unionise).
“In the past there was no democracy, the government dictated the rules and we were forced to obey. Now we can decide if we want to sell our enterprises or not,” says labour leader Somsak Kosaisook. Somsak heads one of the country’s many state-enterprise employees associations, which will become unions under the new labour law.
The new labour law bans federations of unions between state and private enterprises.
Privatisation was a key condition of the IMF’s $17.2 billion aid package to bail out Thailand after the 1997 crisis. It aimed to raise cash to repay the loan and to improve efficiency, technology, and services in key state-run industries - energy, telecommunications, transport and water supply.
Many Thais oppose selling state assets to foreigners - one of the likely results of privatisation. Labour activists focus on the disadvantages of privatisation—higher prices, mass lay-offs, and less access to public services for the poor.
Less than 30 percent of the 2.5 million people sacked during the crisis have received unemployment compensation, according to Nikom Chandravitum, a labour-law expert at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
The 1975 Labour Relations Act distinguished between private and public by refusing to include private sector workers. According to this Act, private sector workers were allowed to organise into two types of labour union:
- house union: a company union and/or an enterprise union whose members are employed by the same employer or enterprise with at least ten signed up members; the house union was supposed to cover middle management, but this led to some confusion as there is no strict legal definition of what constitutes middle management.
- industrial union: with at least ten members employed by different companies, or on different sites or by different employers, but all engaged in the same industry.
In 1975 Thailand 922 unions registered, 514 were house unions, 408 were industrial unions.
In 1994 the 31 million labour force, of which just over 40 per cent was engaged in agriculture. Organised labour was represented by more than 530 trade unions with a combined total of nearly 300,000 members. But some unions lack democratic systems and are headed by ‘big brother’.
According to The Nation newspaper on 1 May 2001, workers marching on Labour Day focused on social security for the unemployed. Somboon Sapsarn, a representative of the State Enterprise Relations Federation said all state enterprise unions were against privatisation because of job security. Appeals were also made for urgent amendments to the Labour Protection Bill, introduction of an occupational health and safety institute, and government intervention on labour disputes.
A labour academic criticised the undemocratic nature of many of Thailand’s unions. He said leaders often acted more like bosses than representatives. A former vice president of the State Enterprise Workers’ Confederation, Banyat Klinsuwan, agreed saying that the labour force lacked good leaders. He said that leaders must be more professional, identify the problems and set targets. “So far labour leaders jump in only when there are labour disputes.”
Tourism is important because it is Thailand’s prime source of foreign exchange.
The International Labour Organisation has several child-labour conventions, including a minimum age of 16 (with qualifications).
According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, the one million unemployment level of 1997 doubled by mid-1998, forcing many migrant workers back home. The FEER reckons those living “on the fringes of poverty numbered around 6 - 8 million people, forming a backbone opposed to intervention by the IMF. The World Bank lent $300 million for social security, but Thailand has no welfare system.” But other pundits put unemployment at three million in 1998.
Bangkok’s minimum wage increased from 162 baht a day in 1998 to 165 in 2001.
Banned from striking -
- state run enterprises;
- telephone and telecoms;
- electric power generation and supply;
- water works and water supply;
- oil refineries;
- hospitals and clinics;
- private education as defined in law;
- co-operative enterprises;
- land, sea and air transport, including those engaged in tourism;
- enterprises dealing in sale or distribution of fuel.
Employment distribution -
- 42% Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing
- 34% Trade and Services
- 24% Manufacturing and Industry
Unemployed: 350,000 (‘96); 2.7 million (‘99)
Unemployment rate: 1.5% (‘96); 8% (‘98)
Most Thai migrants go to work in factories in Taiwan.
As the economy was perceived to improve in 1999, with it the number of Thai workers migrating abroad increased. Recruitment fees for migration to Taiwan doubled to around 180,000 baht in 1999, and are still a controversial issue.
Most Thai migrants go to Taiwan because they pay higher wages than other destinations - see below.
Despite the exodus of migrants, Thailand is short of labour itself. Garment manufacturers demand migrant labour, calling for 350,000 work permits mostly for undocumented Burmese workers. Few Thai workers will work for the wages they offer, so when employers threatened factory closures, endangering exports and the balance of payments, the government compromised by issuing 86,985 work permits for migrants in August 1999.
Almost immediately after the registration period for migrant work permits closed, the government deported 300,000 of undocumented workers to Burma, Laos, and Cambodia including official refugees. The deportations were strongly resisted by business. Undocumented migrants are not protected by labour laws, allowing employers to get away with below minimum wages and poor working conditions.
The Mae Sot district on the Burmese border became a centre for garment and fruit factories in the mid-1990s. The trade was built on abundant cheap labour from Burma. The 100 factories there employed about 70,000 illegal migrant Burmese.
With growing unemployment in Thailand, in December 1999, 2,000 police and soldiers herded the Mae Sot workers onto trucks and drove them to a deserted border crossing to walk home.
The Thai government wished to expel a million foreign workers - more than half of them from Burma. During the boom years, the government encouraged employers to hire migrants knowing that they entered Thailand illegally and pay them 50 - 90 baht a day though the minimum wage then was 130 baht. These employers were up in arms at their cheap labour disappearing.
Taiwanese and Hong Kong businessmen with an estimated one billion baht’s worth of investment in Thailand are major employers of Burmese migrant labour.
1999 Migrant Populations
Thai workers to:
|Hong Kong |
Statistics for Kuwait, Qatar and Libya are unavailable
Occupational Safety and Health
“It couldn’t happen to my son. I still don’t believe it,” said a distraught mother after hearing of her son’s death in an explosion at work. He earned $4 a day.
Unfortunately her son had probably agreed that it could not happen to him. Misguided optimism is one of the worst problems facing OSH activists.
So long as workers are unconcerned about OSH, bosses are under no pressure to invest in safety.
OSH is not taken seriously by the authorities even though Thailand has an appalling industrial record.
In the 1980s the ILO claimed that Thailand’s 32 deaths per 100,000 workers compared to Britain’s two per 100,000.
In 1992 the Social Security Fund reported that 90,000 factory accidents and 200,000 occupational injuries every year were normal for Thailand.
Thailand became the focus of attention in 1993 when 188 mainly young women workers died in the Kader Factory fire - the worst in world history. 400 others were injured, as many jumped out of third and fourth floor windows - company policy was to keep doors locked. The Kader factory made toys for Hasbro, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Tyco, including Bart Simpson and Cabbage Patch dolls. It had no fire extinguishers, fire escapes, alarms or elementary safety procedures.
In September 1999 an explosion at the Hong Thai Kaset Pattana fruit processing factory levelled the buildings, killing 36 and injuring over 100 employees. The Taiwanese owner fled Thailand.
Completely illegally the factory used potassium chlorate (home made bomb ingredient) to assist fruit ripening.
The plant had two buildings. One housed a dangerous and ultimately lethal combination of chemical storage room, kitchen, and dormitory.
Not providing labour protection saves employers money. Hiring workers informally is one way - this automatically marginalises them and removes legal rights they should be entitled to.
A popular method to make workers informal is to employ them at home. These unfortunates are called homeworkers or home-based workers.
A recent ILO seminar in Bangkok targeted home-based workers in five Thai provinces for an OSH action plan .
Seminar participants were from the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MOLSW), the Ministry of Public Health, official institutions, and representatives of workers, home workers, and employers.
MOLSW is trying to enact occupational safety and health legislation to cover homeworkers and has published an OSH training manual for them. The Ministry’s office of home-based workers recently opened offices in 10 provinces. Other key issues include training for homeworkers, and providing easier access to information.
There are an estimated one million homeworkers in Thailand, mostly women with limited education.
There are illegal markets for gambling, smuggling and trafficking in drugs, humans (especially non-Thai passport holders), oil, and guns.
Pasuk Phongpaichit, a teacher and researcher at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, reckons the illegal economy was worth 20 percent of GDP in 1997. He thought it would be difficult to destroy because black market businesses were mostly owned by politicians.
Sungsidh Piriyarangsan a colleague of Pasuk, said that illegal businesses make more than 400 billion baht annually - gambling was easily the biggest at 260 billion baht, then prostitution at 60 billion, petrol and guns totalled just under 100 billion, drugs a mere 30 billion.
Oiling these unlawful wheels were the police themselves who back-pocketed over five billion baht said Sungsidh.
Enormous and important to tourism, but a huge domestic market exists also. Women’s groups say sex work has grown by around 30 percent since 1997.
Anti-Slavery International estimates four million Thai children under the age of 15 are child workers.
A UN report published on 26 January 1999 (UN Common Country Assessment: Thailand,1997-1998) said:
Women and children, especially those from rural areas with little access to education, and also ethnic minorities, are the main targets for trafficking because of their unequal and marginalised status. They are forced into exploitative situations such as the sex industry, begging, or other situations in the labour market in which their services are extorted through violence, abuse of authority, deception, confiscation of identity papers or travel documents, or other forms of coercion. All trafficked victims are bonded labourers.
Exploitation of women and children in the organised commercial sex industry is similar to that of child labourers, but with a higher degree of violence. Young girls are preferred because they are more easily controlled and can be forced to serve a larger number of clients daily. Child prostitutes work long and hard hours with little sleep and for every low pay. They receive only about 40% of what they actually make, much lower than other child workers, because a large proportion of their earnings is taken away by brothel owners and others.
A conservative estimate suggests 200,000 sex-workers in Thailand, (National Commission on Women’s Affairs, 1994). It does not include women and children being trafficked for other types of work, nor those being trafficked from, and through Thailand. Between 20,000 - 30,000 women and girls from [Burma] are reported as being trafficked primarily into brothels in Thailand. 10,000 new recruits are added each year (Asia Watch 1994). The total numbers are assumed to be considerably higher, since the majority of the 917,689 illegal immigrants into Thailand are from [Burma] (Royal Thai Government estimates, 1996).
According to recent research at Mahidol University, an estimated 200,750 foreign children aged 13-18 work in Thailand, mostly boys who have been trafficked. The highest number of trafficked children to Thailand comes from [Burma], followed by Laos and Cambodia.
In late 1997, there were an estimated 780,000 adults and children infected with HIV/AIDS of which 290,000 were women aged between 15-49 years old.
In June 1998, the number of AIDS cases reported was 86,210.
Another study estimated that by year 2000, 1.5 million Thai women would be HIV positive. When they die from AIDS they will leave two million children.
Medical care costs for each patient from the beginning of their illness until death, on average, was equal to approximately six months of the average yearly total household income(about 24,000 baht). In addition, about half of the family production was lost from the reduction in labour supply, leading to a 47.5 per cent decrease in family income.