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Thai Auto Growth offers opportunity and challenges for unions.

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22 August, 2012Over 60 union leaders from The Confederation of Thai Electrical Appliances, Electronic, Automobile and Metalworkers (TEAM) and the Automobile Labor Congress of Thailand (ALCT) co-organized a seminar on 10 August titled “Growing Auto Industry; what are the impacts on workers?” in greater Bangkok. The unions hope with closer cooperation they can have a greater influence on the future shape of the industry.

The meeting took place at a time when the Thai auto industry continues to grow as a result of Government policy and also increasing foreign direct investment (FDI) especially by Japanese OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers). Local unions welcome the growth but also have concerns about the impact this will have on Thai autoworkers. Many of the companies are new to the Thai culture and existing agreements in the auto industry. One question that the unions are trying to tackle is the increased production demand, which is leading many auto parts makers to develop 24-hour production cycles. Both Ford and Mazda have already indicated that it is likely they will start 3-shift operations later this year. 

Researchers believe that the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) is set to become the world’s sixth biggest automobile market by 2018. ASEAN has 10 member states and the region’s auto sales are predicted to double to nearly 4.7 million vehicles by 2018. Thailand will be a driving force in achieving this growth. It’s estimated that Thailand exports over 70 per cent of its auto production in Asia and the Middle East.

Although ASEAN has forged strong bonds between its members there is also fierce competition by governments to attract foreign investment. This has been problematic for the local unions as to date the Thai government has not signed ILO Conventions 87 and 98 on Freedom of Association. In part because the government is nervous that stronger enforcement and labour protection would act as a competitive disadvantage over its neighbors whom are also competing for the same FDI.

Rob Johnston, Executive Director of IndustriALL Global Union, warns that, “The creation of IndustriALL will be a powerful force against those that want a race to the bottom for workers’ rights. Already the unions that make up IndustriALL in Thailand are finding common ground and issues to fight on. Unity will create a powerful force for change.”

Thailand has a labour force of over 39 million and manufacturing accounts for 34 per cent of gross domestic product. The unions have a huge potential to grow but need enforcement of labour laws by the government to prevent organizers being victimized or fired during attempts to unionize. The seminar is the latest example of the Thai labour movement adapting to a changing environment and planning a response.