Spend anytime in Thailand and soon enough you’ll come across someone telling you how lazy Thais are, this is a fact of life and one of the main foreign stereotypes of the denizens of the country. It seems to come from a couple of observations apparent about the country, these being many Thais often don’t seem to have much enthusiasm for the work they are doing and seem to be distant even bored or only half awake which leads sometimes to poor service or mistakes. The second Thais seem to have little enthusiasm for the work life, most Thais don’t seems to want to follow the western employment model of desiring a job in a good company and perhaps shining out and rising to a good position, they’d rather leave a decent job and start their own small shop doing little all day but waiting for customers.
Over the last 2 weeks I’ve accidentally on purpose started conversations with a number of locals in a range of places such as bars, commuter bus stops, a local shrine, noodle and rice stalls in the industrial districts and behind the counter of a shop, I met many interesting people but the few printed here were the most candid. All the people were strangers when I met them and I would like to thank them for their help in writing this article.
The Factory Worker
Pla is 20 years old and was raised on a rice farm in Nakhon Sawan along with her younger brother and sister. Like many families the burden of supporting the family and younger siblings fell upon the oldest daughter and 2 years ago Pla headed to Bangkok in search of work. Pla now works in a fruit juice bottling plant as a line worker, a job which he hates. Pla starts work at 7am each morning and finishes 5:30 pm in the evening, during the day she has a total of an hour in breaks. She works 6 days a week taking her weekly hours up to 65. Each year she has 10 days paid holidays and for this monumental labour she earns just 6000 baht a month, little more than the rent of a one room apartment in Bangkok. Pla shares the single room apartment with three other factory girls, all send around half their salaries to their families and have money left for little more than food not that they have much free time to spend it in. Pla has few needs, partly because life has taught her to, she eats two meals a day from street stalls and her prized possession is her mobile phone from which she texts and talks to her family half a dozen times a day. Pla resents the long hours she works and feels imprisoned by the constraints they place upon her life. At 20 years old she is still yet to have a boyfriend and has no social life, spending most of her day off resting. Pla has no secondary education so little chance of ever finding a better job, despite this she is an avid reader and likes to watch western movies on tv with subtitles preferring this to dubbing. Pla dreams of a way out of her plight and returning to the farm with her family, but this will have to wait until her brothers and sisters are grown up. Her eventual way out may come in two years time when her sister reaches 18 and may replace her in the factory.
The Bungalow Resort Workers
Gao and Puiy are sisters from Udon Thani and have been on Koh Samet for just over a year now working in on one of the island’s smaller bungalow set ups. The sisters are based in a small bar/restaurant built on the beach which is open 18 hours a day serving drinks and cooking food on demand. In addition to this the girl’s rent out the bungalows and clean the ones that become vacant. Working 18 hours a day 7 days a week means they must take any opportunity they get to sleep, this is usually in the mornings and afternoons when it is less busy where one of them sleeps on a camp chair behind the bar while the other one serves. As a result of this they get continual complaints and snide remarks by tourists about them being lazy as one beleaguered girl has to cook food, serve drinks alone while more customers wait and the other is visible asleep on the chair. The girls earn 6000 baht a month and get no holidays, not even public holidays, when I asked why on earth they would do such a job they replied it was better than working the paddy fields.
Som works in a small clothes shop in Bangkok’s trendy Siam Square. Owned by two independent young designers it designs and manufactures it’s own clothes and is frequented by many of the most fashion conscious young girls in the city. Som has worked there for just over a year, employees are employed on a casual basis and receive 500 baht a day cash in hand, also to Som’s delight the staff are required to wear the latest designs while working so get a continual supply of free clothes. The shop works two shifts, 10am to 6pm and midday to 8pm staff get a short break to buy lunch but are expected to bring it back to eat it on premises so they can continue serving customers, staff work 6 days a week. The boutique can be every busy at peak times but also empty, when empty the staff are not expected to look busy and can socialise. Regular customers are encouraged to come into the shop to socialise with staff and chat about clothes, they will often stay all day. Som comes from a government family, but failed her exams at university. Her parents despair about the low classness of her work, but she is reasonably happy as it is such a friendly place to work.
Goy is a 32 year old officer for a large food exporter she has worked there since leaving college. There are over a hundred uniformed officers, all female, who work in a single large room and handle the company’s clerical work. Goy like many of the workers is a farmer’s daughter whose parents saved hard and sent her to college so she may have a better life. Work is from 8am to 6pm six days a week, the company has a fleet of buses that pick employees up from designated points to take them to work each day and drop them off after work it take around an hour to get to and from work using these buses so it is a round 12 hours day. Goy is very aware of western office hours and feels jealous. The company also has an improvement program where people stay after work to attend meetings or come in on their day off for training days, these are voluntary but Goy says no-one dare refuse. Goy says working for the company tends to be a one job for life as few ever leave, the mixture of the office girls ranges from recent college leaver to women reaching retirement age, in the job their is little hope of promotion.
Egg is a 47 year old tourist bus driver. He works for a company that arranges package tours around Thailand. He is currently driving a group of tourists from Malaysia to Pattaya and on an overnight break halfway through the journey which he is spending in a bar with a slack jaw and drinking copious amount of Thai whisky. Currently it’s 3am, he has an 8am start tomorrow and says maybe he’ll hit the sack for an hour or two, but in his job you learn to do without sleep. Egg doesn’t know his working days or hours, sometimes he can be working 24/7 for a week taking a tour around, other times he gets days off. Egg says he earns good money but won’t say how much, but that there is always good opportunity to make money when tourists are around. He loves his jobs and reckons it the best job he has ever had, he gets to see much of Thailand and likes foreigners, his previous jobs range from soldier and songteaw driver to tout.
Pooky is a 29 year old clothes designer from Bangkok and has a shop in Chatuchak Weekend market. She spends weekdays designing and cutting clothes, and taking the design to dressmakers to have them made. On the weekend she is up at 5am and works till the market closes around 6pm. Pooky sells anything between 5-30,000 baht of clothes per day but 10-15,000 on average her net profit is around 40,000 a month. Pooky has a degree in communications from Bangkok university an worked for 7 years for a large media company image making for Thai pop acts but chose to leave to be her own boss.
At the start this investigation I knew Thais endured work conditions a lot harder than anyone in the west can conceive of surviving but I have to admit being surprised by one or two of the responses I got. Many of the interviewees did these jobs half of the time filled with both fatigue and a sense of futility in their working life and imprisoned into it by loyalty to their family with little hope of promotion or notion of escape. Many foreigners dreaming of an easy life working in Thailand ask is there any other job than English teaching they can do, how would they fancy these working hours? The few Thais who do escape do it by starting their own small businesses something preferable to even a decent job at a large company. Thailand has one of the largest wealth gaps of any country in the world and the wealthy ruling class who continually talk of patriotism don’t seem to include lowering their profit margins to pay their workers better and give them shorter hours. Next time you are a tourist in the city with the third most Mercedes on planet earth and get driven past by a fat arrogant man in a brand new 4 wheeler who refuses to give you an inch to cross the road or are teaching a student who tells you they never wash their clothes just wear them once and throw them away that way she gets the fun of shopping again, please blame these people for the bad service you get not the beleaguered Thai worker slaving around the clock to provide them with these luxuries.