Tim Ryan of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center recently visited Thailand and reports on that country’s railway union’s fight against efforts by management and business leaders to break the union.
Sawit Kaewvarn is general secretary of the State Railway Union of Thailand (SRUT) and the general secretary of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC), the biggest and most powerful union confederation in Thailand. So even though he is the pre-eminent trade union leader in the country, he’s being attacked by the railways management and threatened with being fired.
Over the past year, SRUT, along with Thailand’s Supreme Court, have thwarted attacks on the union and stopped attempts to privatize the railways by politically connected business leaders.
A key concern for the workers is safety. Railway management refuses to provide the maintenance and safety devices required to run the trains safely. Not surprisingly, the workers refuse to run the trains without the safety devices. The employees are also being asked to work hours far in excess of what is safe to run the trains.
In most other countries, running the trains without the safety devices is cause for an employee to be disciplined. But in Thailand, it’s just the opposite. If you don’t run the trains without safety devices, management threatens to fire you.
In this environment, accidents are almost inevitable. A train derailment recently killed several people and injured 100 more. The workers were blamed and taken to court, but they remain unwilling to operate unsafe trains even though they are being punished for their stance.
The SRUT sees these actions as an excuse to break the union, which is the strongest force preventing the publicly run railroads from being handed to powerful, politically connected business leaders.
Sawit has reached out to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the AFL-CIO for assistance. The ITF has contacted the Thai government and plans to send a delegation to Thailand in January to raise these issues and demonstrate solidarity with the workers.
The AFL-CIO and the Solidarity Center also have voiced their support for the railway workers. We believe that while this looks like a technical matter of safety and privatization in the railways, it is, in effect, really an attack on the leadership of the Thai labor movement.