Our section on the Thai economy this week included a showing of Behind the Smile, a documentary describing working conditions in factories and at construction sites near Bangkok. Thirty years ago, more than 70% of Thai people were farmers, but things have changed since the country's recent industrial revolution. While farming is still a way of life for many Thais, some villagers are forced to take jobs in urban areas if they fall into debt (a reality for many these days because of modern farming techniques). The film showed the construction site of a high-rise luxury hotel where workers live on site in camps built by the company. The housing consists of one 4 meter by 4 meter room for each family, no clean drinking water, and little security. The workers are never quite sure that they will be paid on time and are given no safety equipment for their jobs-- no hardhats, nothing to protect the lungs from particulate matter, no protective gear of any kind. Most people in the camps intend to stay until they save enough money to return to the village. Recently, however, the influx of Burmese refugees has created an underclass of migrant workers who take these jobs.
What struck me the most when watching the film was that I see this situation every day on my walk home from the bus stop. As I round the last curve on my street, there is a walled area with a cleaners' shop and the bare bones of a building under construction. During my first week I noticed a couple of small, raised bamboo platforms huddled against one of the walls of the compound covered in torn blue tarps. I initially assumed that they were makeshift sheds for the workers' tools, but it soon became clear that 5 or 6 men were actually living in these shelters (each one maybe 10 by 10 feet). Within a week, women joined them-- wives, I assume-- and the area has slowly come to resemble more of a home. A fire pit was added outside the shacks and then a table lashed together from bamboo poles appeared. Today a bamboo clothes line went up. Now, when I walk by around 6p.m. there are about twelve people-- the men washing up with pak-kauw-mas wrapped around their waists and the women squatting around the fire to cook. My host mom confirmed that they are Burmese immigrants.
Walking by in my University student uniform is difficult. Only about 10% of Thai people go to college, and the uniform is usually a source of pride for those lucky enough to wear it. For me, though, as the heads of the construction workers and their wives turn to watch me walk by, it seems a cruel display of power and priviledge. I haven't quite come to terms with living so comfortably literally a stones throw from their poverty. Do they discuss that discrepancy amongst themselves, I wonder?