Labour issues figure low in students' and NGOs' estimation (fwd)

David Welch david.welch at
Mon Aug 7 16:21:06 MDT 2000

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 8 Aug 2000 02:36:21 +0800
From: Charles F. Moreira <cfm at>
Reply-To: marxist-leninist-list at
To: marxist-leninist-list at
Subject: [MLL] Labour issues figure low in students' and NGOs' estimation


Here is an interesting article about the current attitudes of student
activists and radical and apparently "leftist" NGOs which was published in
Thailand's The Nation Newspaper.


Student activist learns labour's a lost love

STUDENT activist Chanakan Phundermvon's lifetime experience in the labour
movement amounts to less than five months.

That's not a long time for an activist who has been helping Pak Mool
villagers fight to defend their way of life from the hydroelectric dam on
and off since 1993, when she was only 17.

But it is long enough to have provoked some disturbing questions in the mind
of the 24-year-old idealist.

Why, Chanakan wondered, is labour one of the least significant and least
attractive issues in the eyes of social activists, non-governmental
organisations (NGOs), academics and the general public?

One respected academic she approached told her simply: "because socialism is

But what about all the abuse workers face from their employers - isn't that
a human rights violation? If so, she wondered, why is it ignored by human
rights activists?

Even among student activists, it took a month of discussion and debates
before Chanakan managed to convince members of the Student Federation of
Thailand (SFT) that workers' struggles must not be neglected.

"It comes down to the issue of preference," said Chanakan. "Student
activists say labour issues are unromantic. They say that, unlike working
with rural villagers, there is no ideal community to look for. There are no
concepts like sustainable development or self-sufficiency among blue-collar
workers. The fact is that, for labourers, there's only work, work and more
work - for money."

Chanakan believes supporters of the rural villagers take pity on them
because villagers are fighting to maintain a beautiful, rural way of life
that the middle classes and elite can feel good about preserving.

"They [the middle class and elite] are nostalgic for the past," she says.
"You don't see that in labour issues. They're only fighting to corrode the
chains of capitalism."

Currently studying history at Ramkhamhaeng University, Chanakan, who came
from a middle-class Bangkok family, has been helping the Thai Durable
Textile (TDT) Union by, among other things, writing press releases since its
traumatic labour dispute began.

She has gained much first-hand knowledge from the struggle in which 390
workers were laid off. And she was there on the day a hired mob was sent to
physically attack union members, most of whom were old and unwanted female
workers. (see inset).

The student activist described the working environment at TDT as
"full-fledged totalitarianism", "one hundred per cent autocratic", and "a
no-entry zone for political reform and participatory democracy".

It's not just the state and the factory owners who are blocking the workers'
rights, said Chanakan, but also the media and so-called civil society.

She complained that the media tend to be ignorant and negative about labour
issues. They tend to play down issues such as the TDT union struggle as a
case of workers fighting private employers, not a public issue.

"First, the textile industry is economically viable but they want to keep
workers badly paid and badly treated. Second, TDT's conflict is not a minor
issue because the employers intended to destroy a strong union and workers'
rights to unionise. Finally, society talks about participatory democracy,
accountability and the rule of law, but on June 22 the employers used a
hired mob to assault female workers in Samut Prakarn-where's the
accountability in that?"

Convincing fellow students to help workers is one thing, but gaining the
trust and acceptance of the workers themselves is no easy task either.

One elderly worker told her he learned a bitter lesson in the 1970s when
student activists were busy helping them.

"The [worker] told me that today some of these student activists have become
factory owners while he's still a labourer," said Chanakan, adding she was
stunned by this revelation.

"I think we still have a lot to prove to them," she said of the student
movement, with a light smile.

"We will try to link up the rural-urban issues," said Chanakan. "Helping
rural villagers taught me to see the distorted state's structure and the
evil of the state. Workers show me the evil of capitalism."

The rural/urban divide and the villager/worker divide should not go on,
Chanakan insisted. The reason she jumped from the dam issue to a labour
concern, she said, was that the labour movement currently has so little
support and few alliances. At present, only three per cent of the labour
force is unionised, and the current trend points to an increasing decline.

"I'm sure that the poor themselves can relate to one another, as they're
both victims of the state and capitalists. What we need is to understand the
whole picture, to understand the fact that these problems are not separate
but inter-related."


The Nation

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