Thailand’s new 2017 constitution recognises the rights to freedom of association, expression, and assembly. However there are significant restrictions - both in law and in its implementation, including against Thai and migrant workers and advocacy groups. The only ILO fundamental conventions not ratified by Thailand relate to freedom of association and the right to organise and collectively bargain. Workers generally have a right to establish and join trade unions, but the majority are excluded, i.e. public sector workers, informal/ temporary workers, those sub-contracted or in seasonal agriculture. Laws governing unions are restrictive, there is significant resistance from employers and enforcement of workers’ rights is poor. Less than 2% of the overall workforce is currently unionised. Conditions for unions deteriorated following the 2014 coup, and several union officials have since been detained/ prosecuted in high-profile trials for their normal union duties. In 2019 the US withdrew trade privileges to Thailand due to its “failure to adequately provide internationally-recognized worker rights... such as protections for freedom of association and collective bargaining”.
Freedom of association is even more restricted for migrant workers who have a right to join an existing union, but not the right to establish or lead one. This makes the right symbolic, given the already low unionisation in Thailand and the fact that most migrants work in sectors with few Thai workers. Language barriers and rampant discrimination also make it difficult to Thai and migrant workers to unionise together. Instead, migrant workers rely on unregistered worker associations or civil society groups to highlight their interests. Collective bargaining is recognised by Thai labour law, even without a union, and worker organizations are involved in such efforts, but there are few protections in practice. Migrant workers, often in debt and at risk of being fired/ deported, are highly disadvantaged in such a context. Thai labour law also recognises the right to strike, albeit only when collective bargaining has failed, but authorities use overly broad powers to prohibit such action.
In Myanmar, despite a first civilian-led government, there had been insufficient corresponding increase in democratic space. Freedom of expression and assembly, while recognised, are not always easy to practice, particularly against interests of the military, which remains powerful - both politically and economically. Human rights defenders, protesters, journalists, and media workers are routinely threatened with arrest and prosecution and self-censorship is widespread. Public assemblies require five day notice and prior governmental approval. Although registration of CSOs is no longer mandatory, the Government privileges registered organisations. After approximately 50 years of being unlawful, trade unions are now legal in Myanmar but restrictions remain, including on workers joining unions of their choice. Relationships between local authorities and unions are beset with bureaucratic hurdles. Collective bargaining and the right to strike have also been recognised in law, but significant restrictions remain in law and there are insufficient protections for workers taking such action. Employers actively discriminate against workers who join a union. Regardless, there has been increased unionisation, and some unions are playing an important role with respect to migrant worker assistance and outreach, particularly as they have existing reach in rural areas. Much more, however would be possible, with improved union-government relations. The military coup of 1 February 2021 has however dashed any such hopes in the near future, as a number of unions and CSOs have been banned, as part of the crackdown on pro-democracy voices which has severely limited freedoms of expression and assembly.
Recommendations to the Government of Myanmar:
- Urgently reaffirm the right to freedom of expression and assembly in Myanmar and ensure that peaceful protest is not suppressed.
- Recognise the important role played by trade unions, including with respect to migrant worker assistance and outreach in rural areas, and prioritise improved union-government relations.
Recommendations to the Royal Thai Government:
- Ratify ILO conventions related to freedom of association and the right to organise and collectively bargain.
- Ensure that migrant workers have the same right to freedom of association as Thai nationals, including being able to establish or lead unions. Ensure that all workers, including migrant workers, are not discriminated against or penalised for membership of a union or for carrying out collective bargaining, exercising their right to strike.