Somboon Srikhamdokkhae is addressing the issue of occupational health and safety in Thailand. She has created an organization that acts as a self-help network for people afflicted with occupational illnesses and as a lobbying group to draw national attention to an issue that has thus far been considered taboo in Thai society.
The New Idea
Somboon Srikhamdokkhae is the first person in Thailand to bring the issue of occupational health and safety to public attention by coordinating the efforts of a broad coalition of people who have experienced work-related illnesses and injuries. Her organization is positioned outside of but parallel the trade union movement in Thailand, so its membership cuts across different industries. No such organization existed in Thailand prior to Somboon's work. She is building a movement in Thailand whose moment has arrived.Somboon's work functions entirely through the immense personal efforts of a base of volunteer members, now 1000 strong, who offer stricken workers aid in the form of financial assistance, moral support and legal advice. This is the first time workers have had such an organization to turn to, and they are now becoming more aware of their rights as workers. One of the reasons that Somboon's work is so effective is that the volunteers are personally affected by work-related illnesses and have a vested interest in making their voices heard.
Similar to many countries in the process of industrialization, Thailand's development process places a heavy emphasis on the industrial sector of the economy, and factories have proliferated as a result. As more people began to work in factories, work-related illnesses became more common. According to statistics of the Thailand Office of Labor Compensation Fund, 156,548 workers reported illnesses due to work-related causes in 1993. In 1994, 863 workers died from industrial accidents and another 4,549 suffered severe injuries, according to reports in the Thai press.
The issue of occupational health is extremely sensitive in Thailand because acknowledgement of it is seen as a potential threat to the process of industrial development. The few pieces of national legislation on the issue have been inadequate only applied to those factories that employed 100 or more workers. Only after some serious accidents received a great deal of attention in the media did the government lower the threshold to 50 workers.
In many countries, this would be an issue taken up by trade unions, but in Thailand the private-sector trade union movement is very weak and fragmented by specialized interests, Trade unions have actually competed against one other to push individual agendas and thus have not been strong enough to be effective advocates of broader issues such as improved working conditions, food services, housing facilities and health benefits or compensation for overtime and work-related illnesses and injuries.
The most common illnesses in the work place are found in the textile industry. Byssinosis, for example, is related to the constant inhalation of cotton dust; it affects the breathing capacity of the lungs and has similar symptoms to bronchitis. Other illnesses derive from contact with dyes and chemicals. Impaired vision, which affects both textile workers and those who do detail work in producing electronic goods, is common.
Workers are poorly informed about health risks, and, unaware of the specific problems that can arise in connection to the work they are doing. They often do not even attribute their illnesses to their jobs. Their ignorance has also made it a simple matter for companies to deny any responsibility to compensate workers, improve working conditions or even justify the firing of employees.
Somboon began her focus on occupational health from within the trade unions, but she soon found that their inherent weaknesses called for a different strategy. In 1994 she created the Network Assembly of Sick Persons from Works and Environment of Thailand, which, though separate from the trade unions, works closely with them. Through the Assembly she has organized a peer-based self-help system for workers, which addresses their health needs and educates them about their rights. The second strategic emphasis of the organization is to lobby for the necessary legal changes to protect Thai workers.
She has recruited more than 1,000 volunteers who make up the Assembly from different sectors of the economy, but who almost all share the common problem of having work-related illnesses or injuries. One of the most important objectives is to educate workers on health issues because they often do not realize that their ailments are due to their jobs. The Network Assembly also informs them of their legal rights as workers, such as compensation for work-related illnesses, and acts as an intermediary to put workers in contact with the Lawyers' Council of Thailand in the case of legal proceedings. Through voluntary contributions, workers have pooled their resources to help each other with medical fees or compensatory of income when illness prevents them from working.
The government is the main focus of the Network Assembly's lobbying efforts. Without new legislation and official action, Somboon realizes that workers will continue to suffer. In order to secure standards for workplaces and a voice for workers in future industrial planning, she is building partnerships with government departments such as environmental agencies, workers' groups, universities, professionals such as physicians and lawyers, nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, and businesses. The Assembly has already submitted proposals to the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare for comprehensive legislation to establish a Department of Vocational Medicine and Environment at the Rajavithi Hospital. One of Somboon's goals, is to institute a system of regular physical examinations for workers in order to monitor their health. They have submitted proposals to the Ministry of Industry concerning rights of compensation, investigation of factory conditions, legal sanctions for companies that do not comply with the new standards that are being developed and the setting up of Safety Committees in every industry.
Through all of her efforts, Somboon has been effective in gaining the attention of the print and television media to increase coverage of the consequences of industrial development for workers. One result has been a great degree of solidarity amongst workers since they feel that their concerns are finally being addressed in a concrete manner. In addition, she has earned enough attention to have been able to meet personally with Thailand's current Prime Minister, which will further the Assembly's efforts with the government.
Somboon was born in Ban Wat Phorieng, Thonburi on October 15, 1959. She completed her education through high school and then went directly on to work for a factory. After twelve years her health began to be affected significantly. Initially she was diagnosed as having colds and bronchitis, but medication for these problems did not improve her condition. It was only after she went to a specialist in vocational medicine, Oraphan Methadilokkul, at the Rajavithi Hospital that she was correctly diagnosed with byssinosis. Though the disease has no cure, her symptoms have been mitigated by the treatment she now undergoes.
Her determination to carry out her project is all the stronger because she has personally felt the effects of the illness and has encountered the legal and social obstacles to taking any recourse. In July 1996, Somboon was dismissed from her job and is currently taking legal action against her former employer. She is determined to improve the conditions and legal environment for people like herself.