Thai flooding leaves a sea of misery

November 08, 2012

By DAISUKE FURUTA/ Correspondent

BANGKOK--Countless lives were uprooted by last year's flooding in Thailand that inundated industrial parks where a host of Japanese-affiliated enterprises operated.

Many of the companies have since resumed operations, but numerous Thais who used to work for them remain jobless after their employers went bankrupt.

Few have any immediate prospects of landing a job.

One such person is Charita Sukheerat, who lives adjacent to the Rojana Industrial Park in central Ayutthaya province.

Charita kept her pay slips and ID tag issued by her former employer in case she is asked for documentation to back up her claim for severance pay. She prays that they will be the ticket to her future.

Blurry letters in blue from her last monthly pay slip, for September 2011, state that she received 24,000 baht ($780, or 61,500 yen).

"Given my age, I won't be able to land another job," said Charita, who is 38 years old. "My dream is to use the severance pay to open a food stall. I also have a daughter to raise."

Charita worked for Seidai Kasei (Thailand) Co., a Japanese-affiliated machine parts manufacturer that was under water for weeks on end.

She joined the company after leaving college and had worked there for 16 years, rising to head the material procurement division.

Company officials vanished as the scale of the disaster unfolded in October 2011. Under Thai law, companies that suspend their operations due to causes beyond their control are obligated to pay 75 percent of regular wages to employees during the period in question and pay retirement money upon dismissal.

Charita and colleagues filed a lawsuit against their former employer and won a court ruling in March that ordered it to pay the plaintiffs 240,000 baht. The money was never paid.

"The company virtually went bankrupt because of the flooding and does not have the means to pay that amount," its president told The Asahi Shimbun.

"Our plant was inundated with water because of the insufficient anti-flood measures taken by the government," said a representative of the parent company in Japan. "All our equipment and inventory were spoiled, but we have never been compensated. We had no way to rehabilitate the company."

Charita lived close to the industrial park with her parents and a younger brother. The house was inundated to a depth of 1.5 meters. Mud still sticks to the walls and floor.

Her parents have since rented an apartment nearby. Charita moved in with an older sister while her husband returned to his native village, where he has a job.

Her younger brother moved to Bangkok. The flooding has torn the family apart.

Charita accepts that the flooding was beyond anybody's control, and also accepts the government has made its priority to rebuild the industrial park at the expense of assistance to local residents.

"Employment is the most important thing," she said.

But Charita said she still resents the fact she was left to fend for herself after so many years of service.

"Have we been abandoned?" she asked.

Santi Phongwithee, 42, and his wife Prathum, 41, worked at the same plant for 17 years and 18 years, respectively.

Santi was a foreman, and Prathum worked on a production line. They had a combined monthly income of 30,000 baht.

Currently, the couple gets by on a daily income of 400-600 baht that Santi earns by operating a motorcycle taxi. About one-third of that goes on gasoline and other necessities.

With both of them working, the couple was the most affluent among their extended family. Prathum said only one in four applicants passed the entrance test to join the company.

Life was good, she noted, and the couple covered part of the medical expenses for Prathum's parents, who are over 70, as well as tuition fees for their relatives' children.

But no longer.

Prathum said she had mailed her resume to a number of prospective employers, but said the only job she was offered was to look after plants. She said her age worked against her.

Her main concern is keeping up with payments for a loan using their home and land as collateral to cover their children's tuition fees and the price of a car when annual pay increases were the norm five years ago. She said the couple will lose everything unless they continue to pay annual interest amounting to 30,000 baht.

In September, the Thai government said that only 684 of the 839 companies in the seven industrial parks flooded last year had managed to resume operations. It said 52,256 workers had lost their jobs due to plant shutdowns and relocations.

The government of Ayutthaya province has held job fairs this year for workers who lost their jobs in the flooding. But many of the job offers are from plants outside the province, which were not affected by the flooding.

The fairs did not go down well with locals.

"I cannot move because I have a family," said one person. "Nobody wants you if you are over 35," said another.

Even the relatively fortunate few who received retirement money have had to face the problem of finding a new job. Many are cash-strapped, according to the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee, a nongovernmental organization committed to helping jobless people.

"Nearly half of all workers who lost their jobs (in last year's flooding) probably are still without employment to this day," said Chamlong Chabamrung, a member of the Solidarity Committee, noting that there has been little government assistance.

By DAISUKE FURUTA/ Correspondent
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Charita Sukheerat displays her pay slip for September 2011 and ID card from a Japanese-affiliated machine parts manufacturer in Ayutthaya province, Thailand. She lost her job because of devastating flooding the following month. (Daisuke Furuta)

Charita Sukheerat displays her pay slip for September 2011 and ID card from a Japanese-affiliated machine parts manufacturer in Ayutthaya province, Thailand. She lost her job because of devastating flooding the following month. (Daisuke Furuta)

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  • Charita Sukheerat displays her pay slip for September 2011 and ID card from a Japanese-affiliated machine parts manufacturer in Ayutthaya province, Thailand. She lost her job because of devastating flooding the following month. (Daisuke Furuta)
  • Prathum Phongwithee, left, displays the uniform she wore while working for a Japanese-affiliated machine parts manufacturer in Ayutthaya province, Thailand. She said she keeps the uniform in case the company decides to resume operations. Her husband Santi, right, now runs a motorcycle taxi to make ends meet. (Daisuke Furuta)

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