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The Thai Labour Museum - a History of Strife, Sweat and Toil

By Eric Lim

The Thai Labour Museum is housed in a modest single story

red building by the railway line near the Makkasan railway

station. The building used to be the railway police station, then

the railway labour union office, before being converted to a

museum on 17 October 1993.

The monument outside the Thai Labour Museum signifying

the "Dignity of Labour" shows a man and a woman pushing a

huge wheel, the wheel of history.

The museum captures the 300-year history of the Thai labour

movement from the days of slavery to the present, tracing the

evolution of the Thai labour.

Slavery

The journey in the Thai Labour Museum starts with the period

of slavery. Since the 1700s slaves and commoners or Phrai

worked without wages. The Phrai were tattooed with their

names of the area of abode and their masters.

The advent of paid labour

The Bowing Treaty in 1855 in the reign of King Rama IV

opened up trade and pressure for reform. Increased labour

demand was met by the influx of Chinese immigrants. This was

the advent of paid labour though conditions were abysmal.

Reform - the abolition of slavery

In 1873, King Chulalongkorn or King Rama V abolished

slavery, a watershed in the history of Thai labour fittingly

recorded in the Thai Labour Museum. All men were free to

seek employment for a fair wage.

Political reform and the labour movement

The early 1920s had no clear government policy on labour.

Labour had no right of organization. Industrial disputes and

strikes were frequent. Intellectuals, the pioneers of the labour

movement, tried to raise awareness to this growing problem.

The 1932 coup brought hopes of improvement. The Thai Tram

Workers Association, the first labour union was formed. A

nationalist economic policy required Thai ownership of

companies, registration of unemployed and recognition of

workers' rights.

World War II and the Cold War

The Japanese occupation in World War II put a halt to things,

causing unemployment, inflation and severe hardships. Many

workers joined the underground resistance movement.

Thai labour's setback continued during the Cold War. Military

dictators, who were staunchly anti-communist and anti-labour,

clamped down on labour as workers' rights and unions were

considered unfavourable to investment.

The turbulent 1970s to the end of the century

Widespread discontent forged an alliance of workers, farmers

and students that boiled over in 1973. The video in the Thai

Labour Museum gives a detailed account of the events leading

up to the bloodbath on 14 October 1973.

Other problems were that of abuse of child and women labour

and gross neglect of workers' safety. In 1993 188 workers,

mostly women, perished when a fire burnt down the Kader

Doll Factory. The 1997 economic crisis was another bitter pill.

Thai labour and Songs for life

The last stop in the Thai Labour Museum is a fitting finale as it

embodies the spirit of the politically disenchanted, the

exploited and neglected. The labour movement took their

plight to the people through music.

Hardships and toil are expressed through songs with poignant

images of broken dolls and tearful children mourning the loss

of their mothers in the Kader Doll Factory fire.

Current issues facing Thai labour today

Issues still facing Thai labour today are a fair minimum daily

wage, the privatization of state enterprises and workers' safety.

Will a new page be written in Thai labour history for inclusion

in the Thai Labour Museum?

About The Author
Eric Lim, is a free-lance writer who lives in Bangkok Thailand.

This article first appeared in http://www.tour-bangkok-legacies.com a historical travel site on people, places and events that left their mark in the landscape of Bangkok. For more, please see http://www.tour-bangkok-legacies.com/bangkok-museums.html.


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