Recognizing that the needs of informal laborers–including home-based subcontract laborers and Thailand's self-employed–were not being met by labor unions, current labor law, or civil society groups, Rakawin Leechanavanichpan launched HomeNet Thailand, an effort that combines the advocacy of trade unions with the capacity building of direct service organizations to create a voice for Thailand's homeworkers.
The New Idea
An experienced labor advocate in Thailand, Rakawin is drawing attention and channeling resources to the needs of workers in the growing, yet overlooked, informal sector. Because these primarily female workers are considered self-employed, they lack access to the welfare and social protection benefits, bargaining power, and health and safety protections available to workers in more formal jobs. Rakawin's strategy responds to the specific needs of homeworkers, who cannot be reached, and whose needs cannot be addressed, by traditional labor organizing methods. With her staff at the Bangkok-based HomeNet Thailand, Rakawin works directly with community-based organizations of homeworkers through networking, education, and capacity training to improve their collective strength and immediate welfare. Additionally, HomeNet Thailand partners with government agencies, national and international civil society organizations, trade unions, and selected employers to increase the visibility of these homeworkers in national policy. By building an effective coalition at the grassroots, national, and international levels, Rakawin is securing greater voice, recognition, representation, and rights for Thailand's millions of home-based workers.
Two-thirds of Thailand's workforce–over 20 million people–are employed in the informal sector, 80 percent of whom are women. With jobs characterized by informal relationships with employers, a significant portion of these women work at home through subcontracting, engaging in labor ranging from industrial piecework produced by factories–machining clothes, sewing shoes, or assembling electronics–to producing traditional handicrafts outsourced to villagers by traders, such as weaving, papermaking, or pottery. A host of challenges confront these women: piece-rate wages resulting in low and inconsistent income; inability to access government services; little bargaining power to fight exploitation by middlemen due to the absence of organized representation; insufficient access to markets and funds; poor safety and health information; and no holidays. Moreover, because the Thai government recognizes these home-based laborers as self-employed rather than employees or workers, they have no entitlement to the social welfare schemes, health and safety protections, and legal rights given to those who are formally employed. This distinction holds true even for homeworkers in subcontracting arrangements–those who resemble wage laborers in being totally dependent on a single enterprise for their equipment, raw materials and orders, but whose employers can treat them as self-employed and therefore do not contribute to their social protection.
The diverse, dispersed, and often migratory nature of the informal labor pool has meant that it does not have a natural interest group representing it. Even when labor unions overcome their hostility to this sector, traditional labor organizing methods, focused as they are on localized and contractual labor, prove unsuccessful. Given the lack of influence of this constituency, politicians have largely ignored the group, overlooking its contribution to the Thai economy in favor of the easier-to-recognize industrial sector. Largely absent from government statistics and policy, homeworkers remain a particularly vulnerable–and largely invisible–sector of the workforce.
Tailored to the particular needs of informal sector workers, Rakawin's strategy rests on three primary approaches: organizing and strengthening the network among community-based homeworkers' groups; creating partnerships with and coordinating NGOs, international organizations, trade unions, selected employers and government agencies on the issue to increase the visibility and voice of home-based and other informal sector workers; and advocating policy changes both nationally and internationally to secure greater recognition of these workers and their rights.
Rakawin sees organizing home-based workers as necessary not only to increase their collective strength, but also to help them address the immediate economic and social needs required for their survival–educational opportunities, occupational safety information, savings and social insurance schemes, and new and better markets for their services or products. HomeNet works in conjunction with NGOs to help workers identify and organize each other. Having overcome the traditional antagonism of trade unions, HomeNet also organizes retrenched workers, who are knowledgeable about their rights, to serve as leaders to reach out to others.
Once groups are formed, HomeNet Thailand and its partners–CSOs, labor unions, selected employers and government officials–offer training in leadership, management, marketing, and finance to improve their members' production capacity and income. True to Rakawin's belief that with the proper support, home-based workers can help themselves and each other, several homeworkers' groups have used these new skills to establish independent markets and savings programs, reducing their dependence on middlemen, and stabilizing their financial situations. This self-help approach is particularly vital in the area of health, as the home-based nature of these workers means that their system of labor and their way of life are intertwined. Without employers to redesign equipment or impose safer procedures, HomeNet provides information and assists workers in integrating it into their lives.
Additionally, HomeNet coordinates a national network currently consisting of 240 of these groups, based regionally in the north, northeast, and central regions. While management of the network is currently undertaken by HomeNet staff, Rakawin is gradually transferring its day-to-day operations to homeworkers themselves to create a more participatory and democratic structure. A workers' committee has already been established and is beginning the next phase of network building–linking groups by industry, and not just by location as they are now.
Realizing that a wider coalition is needed to ensure these workers' long-term welfare, Rakawin also devotes substantial time to bringing together homeworkers with other relevant parties to increase awareness of the issue of homeworkers and engender collective responsibility for addressing their needs. For example, to improve workers' job safety, HomeNet works with civil society organizations to identify hazards and create forums to discuss them, while assisting academics to develop standard education and training manuals. Although Rakawin ultimately aims for these groups to initiate and develop programs aimed at homeworkers on their own, HomeNet now serves an intermediary role, helping design projects and following up to ensure that they are sufficiently relevant in content and flexible in implementation to allow for homeworker accessibility.
Owing in large measure to the efforts of HomeNet, the Thai government has begun to recognize the needs of home-based workers and other laborers in the informal sector. Having developed a policy and opened an office for homeworkers for the first time in 1998, the government has now expanded labor law and labor statistics to include homeworkers–all following HomeNet's proposals. In addition to serving as an advocate for homeworkers before the Ministries of Labor and Health, HomeNet conducts research, makes policy recommendations, and helps draft legislation to guarantee the labor rights of home-based workers, while joining with government agencies to create mechanisms to assure these rights are respected.
Rakawin also leads the effort on the regional and international levels. Having developed a southern-focused Southeast Asian network of homeworker organizations in 1995, Rakawin now serves as coordinator, focusing her energies on expanding and replicating the network throughout the region, beginning in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Laos. After linking this network with HomeNet International in 1998, Rakawin now serves as a regional representative in this and other international bodies, presenting the network's research on the specific reality of informal workers in Southeast Asia.
Born in 1957 in Bangkok, Rakawin cites her father as her first role model of generosity and dignified labor practices. The successful owner of a boat repair business, her father offered decent wages to those who worked for him, while looking after the health and welfare not only of his employees, but also of his poor neighbors. Rakawin began following her father's example early in life; for example, organizing the local children to help provide food to their peers in the nearby slums.
Rakawin eventually enrolled at Thammasat University, one of Thailand's leading universities and the center of the pro-democracy movement in the 1970s. Fascinated by the momentum of student activism that dominated the campus, she became active in Thailand's nascent civil society movement through her role as a student leader in progressive Catholic student groups. Although she acceded to her father's request to study accounting, Rakawin minored in economics. After obtaining her degree, Rakawin continued participating in the social movement, working first in community organizations and later in trade unions. Initially unprepared for the rough-and-tumble world of male-dominated unions, Rakawin learned from the experience that workers could not only speak but also struggle for themselves.
Rakawin's introduction to the informal sector came in 1992, when she became the national coordinator for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Bishop's Conference of Thailand. At a time when economic expansion in north Asia sprouted sweatshops to the south, the commission undertook a project to study the conditions of women in Thailand's garment industry. Surprised equally by the vulnerability of the workers and her own ignorance about the entire sector, she consulted with leaders in the field to help the women organize childcare, educational opportunities, credit union membership, and open a dialogue with their employers and local government officials. The same year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) initiated a project through the commission and several other existing organizations to establish an informal network of NGOs dealing with homeworker issues. When the ILO abruptly terminated the project in 1999, and the network ceased to function, Rakawin took over as director, making it independent while rebuilding and expanding it into HomeNet Thailand.