‘A bunch of feeble sticks maypry a log
Small power mayovercome massive power
‘A bunch of feeble sticks maypry a log
Small power mayovercome massive power
No strong power shall withstand
All the small sticks come together bravely
With the two hands of a worker,
Any force shall crumble’
From an email of GM 21 Workers’ Union
The poem is an excerpt from an email by the GM Workers’ Unionwhich inspired me to write this article. It just struck me, as a worker who suffers from occupational disease. When we were lodging the case against the employers, we were often asked how can ‘small people’ like us win a fight with a big and powerful´´ company? Many people with good will warned us against doing so. But we were not so deterred by that. In our mind, either we fight or do not fight; we shall suffer anyway, so it is better to fight. What will happen if we get ill and have no money to pay for the medical bill? After all, it was the employers who took our illness for granted. They asked the Court to revoke the decision made by the Workmen’s Compensation Fund to award nearly 200 workers who in our view suffered from byssinosis which was related to our work. From the diagnosis of Dr. Oraphan Methadilokkul, the Occupational Health and the Environment Clinic, RatjavithiBangkokHospital, it was confirmed that we suffered from byssinosis as a result of the inhalation of cotton dust while working. We have to take ten pills per dose, about 30 pills per day. We are constantly irritated by dry and sore throats with phlegm, fever and chronic coughing. We cough until we feel pain in our ribs and feel pangs when inhaling. Sitting, standing, walking or sleeping, we always find our breathing uncomfortable.
Relieved workers in front the Central Labour Courtin Bangkok. After 15 years of struggle, the Supreme Court on 8 November 2010upheld the lower court ruling that awarded the 38 workers of BangkokWeaving Factory eigh million baht in compensation. The company and its managing director were found to have failed to provide a proper working environment, which led to the workers contracting byssinosis Photo: WEPT
On 9 May 1995, of the 200 compensated workers who then formed the injured/victim’s organization (WEPT), 37 workers suffering from byssinosis decided to pursue justice and lodged the complaints against the Bangkok Weaving Factory’s employers and each demanded 1-2 million baht as compensation. The amount was calculated from: the treatment which cost about 2,000-3,000 baht per month, the loss of opportunity to earn one’s livelihood for 5,000 baht per month, expenses of 3,000 baht per month for raising our children and looking after our parents, and the invaluable loss of our lung capacity which is so vitally important to cleanse the blood before it can nurture our body. Our attorneys sued the company in this case, as the polluter who negligently allowed the toxic cotton dust to spread in the air and be inhaled into our bodies, causing grave health impacts including byssinosis and the permanent loss of pulmonary function.
The trials have been taking place for a long time. Witness examinations have made us walk up and down the Court a number of times. We had to undergo many tormenting experiences as suffering workers. The employers kept denying their responsibilities and challenging us to get examinations from other doctors. They really showed their disrespect toward us. The workers were obliged to prove the employers’ guilt, even though the factory should have been subject to inspection. Several of us decided to resign from the work as they could no longer bear the pressure and as they had suffered so much from the illness that they could not work. Many had been laid off and had to live from hand to mouth whilst suffering from both physical and mental agonies. Yet, we were still determined to prove that their injuries were really caused by the working environment – even though the employers accused us of making up the story and looked at us as if our illness was just a pretense!
8 years and 4 months passed; the Court was scheduled to read the verdict on 30 September 2003. The employers were found guilty for being negligent by letting the cotton dust lurk around, causing the workers to suffer from byssinosis and permanent loss of pulmonary function; and they were told to award each worker between 60,000-200,000 baht plus the interest incurred at the rate of 7.5% per year, as compensation to us. But the employers decided to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, most workers started to suffer the worst conditions. Some had to take refuge in the temples, others had to eke out their living through hired work. Despite their frail health, they had to struggle to earn their living to support their young children and old parents. Fearing discrimination from society, they had to pretend they were not ill and would not let anyone know about the ongoing court cases. The workers began to suffer more from complications from byssinosis, including suffering from chronic cold, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and most importantly bone diseases, all problems which have been experienced by most of us since we have been taking the medicine for a long time. The malfunctioned lungs have made us vulnerable to diseases. Apart from suffering from the physical impacts, many of us have been affected mentally. Some began to isolate themselves, getting more depressed, getting easily irritated, becoming insomniac, and being forgetful and blurred. Being unable to work, they have incurred a lot of debts. Some even thought about taking their lives, to run away from this vicious world.
11 yearspassed, the Supreme Court was scheduled to deliver the verdict on 14 May 2006. Everyone was there to listen to the final verdict. They only hoped all the agonies would be definitely ended today and that justice be delivered. To their dismay, claiming the Central Labour Courtfailed to review all relevant evidence, the Supreme Court dismissed its verdict and asked the Central Labour Courtto examine three more points among the 37 plaintiffs including:
1. Did the masks provided by the defendants for their employees meet the standard set forth by relevant agencies or not?
2. Did the defendants fix as a rule for their employees to have the masks on during their work and ensure that the employees follow the regulation or not?
3. When were the two defendants first aware of the violation against the plaintiffs and for how long had the violation been taking place? When were the defendants aware of the violation and their responsibility to provide for the compensation?
It is not too hard to guess what the audience at the Court witnessed that day. The tears of the suffering workers. The tears that rolled down faces of the workers who could hardly stand. Some could not help but complain why the retrial is now being ordered, after several years had passed and all the evidence had been submitted to the Court? How long would this retrial last? What would be the results? Should the workers win the case, would there be another appeal against the order? What are we to do if we lose? Has there been such a case like this? The byssinosis-stricken workers started to fade away. WEPT tried to organize activities to get the workers to exchange every month, or to speak on behalf of the network. Some shared their medicines. Some borrowed money from other workers. Some sold stuff to each other. And several of us had to pay visits to fellow workers who were bed-ridden and were unable to see the doctor.
Then came the day the Central Labour Courtread its second verdict on 30 May 2007, after 12 years. Again, the Court ruled that the workers won the case and the employers were ordered to provide 60,000-110,000 baht plus interest at 7.5% to the 37 workers. Everyone was so happy and thought it would be an end there. It did not matter if the compensation awarded this time was only half of the previous verdict. But the euphoria did not last for very long, as we learned that the employers decided to appeal the case. This time, the workers felt really depressed and some resigned from the group, saying they no longer wanted the compensation. Their health was so frail, and lack of money and medicine made them feel hopeless to fight.
While awaiting the order of the Supreme Court, a notice was issued to us from the Legal Execution Department informing us that the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and it had asked the Central Bankruptcy Court to approve its rehabilitation plan. And we were asked to identify ourselves as creditors of the company. Despite their illness, the workers living in the provinces had to travel to Bangkokto meet and prepare a letter of authorization. About three to four workers felt so hopeless they decided not to pursue the case. Nevertheless, everyone got together again and made an attempt to negotiate with the employers who offered to pay each worker 100,000 baht without having to wait for the Supreme Court’s order, on the condition that we withdraw the case. In the meeting, the affected workers did not agree to withdraw the case. Eventually, the Central Bankruptcy Court ruled the company was not really bankrupted and refused to approve its rehabilitation plan. That was one good thing about our strong determination and collective decision-making without relying on just the opinions of a few people.
Since then we had been monitoring progress at the Supreme Court level. Letters of inquiry were submitted by the workers to the Secretary of the President of the Supreme Court and every time we were told the case was going on. We started to feel nervous about the results. Somehow, justice is so light like cotton wool, making it very difficult to be contained. Those older workers often complained to me, whether they would live until the verdict was read. They had been getting ill from time to time and some had very little money. Their creditors came after them and they had to sell their houses to run away and live somewhere else. WEPT kept giving them support and organized activities for them so that they would not be so stressed. They were taken to group activities here and there.
Somboon and the other workers in high spirits with fists raised, after learning of the final verdict on 8 November 2010. It was a milestone victory, though the workers cannot recover their ability to work normally and provide for all their medical expenses. Photo: VoiceTV
Coming on 15 years and 6 months, Ms. Urai Chaiyuchit was the only person to receive a notice from the Court asking her to listen to the final verdict on 8 November 2010. It was strange that there were 37 plaintiffs, but only one worker got the notice. WEPT helped to make more copies of the notice and distributed it among the 37 workers who lived in different places. On the ruling day, everyone got prepared for whatever order the Court would deliver. They simply wanted the case to reach a final end so that they could die with their eyes closed. The stress had reigned on them for a long time. They were lucky enough to live to listen to the Court’s verdict. A couple of them, despite being informed of the Court’s hearing, were not convinced of the result. Of course, the Court concurred with the Central Labour Court, and everyone was so jubilated with the clean victory and the restoration of human dignity. It pleased them that at last, the facts were ascertained that they really suffered from work-related injuries. We have been fighting for the truth, to let people know that getting the money was not what we solely wanted. We also wanted to win the case (by the order of the law). It should set a precedent and help fellow workers to realize their due rights. But I feel the trial could have done more. Thus, efforts are needed to ensure that fair compensation is provided promptly to the workers, given their ill health which requires them to get long-term treatment everyday. Let’s make this case the first and last lesson learned for the struggle of the right to health among the workers.
Actually, the right which the Workmen’s Compensation Act entitles the workers to is a most basic right provided by law. The amount is barely enough and should therefore be increased to cover all the medical expenses, making it feasible for the workers to live their lives in society. Otherwise, will we simply leave the injured workers to their own devices?
Do I think at last the workers got the justice they desired? I just want to answer with a metaphor. The affected workers are like fruits whose sweet and fragrant meat has been eaten up by worms, leaving only nearly rotten seeds to them. As a saying goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. From now on, the workers who suffer from byssinosis and permanent loss of pulmonary function have to go on with their living until their last breath. They simply have no idea how rough the path would be in future…
About The Council of Work and Environment Related Patient’s Network of Thailand (WEPT)
The Group of Patients of Byssinosis from Workplaces, also known as The Council of Work and Environment Related Patient’s Network of Thailand (WEPT), was formed by eight workers who fell sick from working in a textile factory in the Bangkok area called the Bangkok Weaving Factory.
Mrs. Somboon Srikhamdokae with Prof. Voravidh Charoenloet
speaking at the ANROAV Conference in Indonesia, 2010.
Working in the spinning section and weaving section of the garment factory, the workers were exposed to health hazards. The workplace is very noisy, dark, hot, dusty with fine and gross particles, and with poor ventilation. However, the unhealthy working conditions had never been found by the factory inspection officers because they would be covered up before their arrival. The workers finally suffered lung function loss and difficult respiration, hearing impairment, damaged eyesight, toxic chemical exposure and byssinosis.
The employers then denied responsibility despite the workers’ work-related sickness. The Workmen’s Compensation Fund agreed with the employers and refused to make benefit payments to them. At that time, the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) was organizing mass demonstrations. The group of byssinosis patients requested to join them and add their demand to AOP’s. Such social action was very new to the sick workers. During the 99-day mass demonstration which began on 25 January 1997in front of the Government House in Bangkok, as many as 25,000 people assembled, and 100 of patients took part until they were granted compensation for loss of lung capacity according to the normal compensation rule of the Workmen’s Compensation Fund.
At the early stage, there was only one clinic, which belonged to Dr. Oraphan Methadilokkul of RatjavithiBangkokHospital, that provided diagnosis, case confirmation and treatment for occupational sickness. At the clinic, the sick workers found many patients from different places who suffered the same situation. The sick workers had to go through over 100 court cases such as the employers’ appeals against their occupational sickness, the employers’ demands for cancellation of the Workmen’s Compensation Fund benefit payment, compensation benefit payments being withheld by the Workmen’s Compensation Fund, lay-offs of the workers, etc. By joining the AOP’s action, WEPTwas able to make its issues known in the public. The byssinosis workers were finally compensated. However, of the 200 compensated workers, 37 decided to pursue justice by taking their employer to court. On 8 November 2010, the judgment finally came from the Supreme Court on labour affairs. The bitter experiences during their struggle trying to seek justice through a court case became a painful memory for the sick workers. After 15 years of struggle, they had won 8 million baht for the whole group. Divided by their 15 years, it compensates them at the rate of 1,000 baht per month of their past suffering – but cannot ever recover their lost lung capacity and other health losses.
In addition to the workers, WEPT’s work also includes communities affected from industrial hazards and polluted environments such as the Mae Mo community of 300 villagers. They are in a legal process, demanding compensation from the Mae Mo power plant in Lampang province for its emission of sulphur dioxide that has been causing pneumoconiosis among villagers. The villagers have won their cases in the lower court but are waiting for the final judgment from the High Court. How many of them will die before the justice is delivered?
The above is from a part of the article written by Mrs. Somboon Srikhamdokae, ‘Overview of Impacts on Health and Safety of Thai Workers in Formal Industrial Sector’, for the ANROAV BandungConference 2010. Following is her reflection on the struggle and hard-won gains of WEPT after 15 years.