we are not temporary
“Dear Prime Minister, the Public Health Minister, Management of all the hospitals and the relevant persons who can help, The work we do, in my view, should not be called temporary work. These are the jobs that must be done every day, every month, every year. My life is not of great value and I can sacrifice, I do hope you consider us. Temporary workers do not earn enough to feed our families. We all have to buy food just like you. I also hope my life would not be wasted. All temporary workers should have better lives. Please remember that the work we do is regular work, not temporary.”
These could be the words of a worker from anywhere and at any time in our history but it’s to our sickening shame that they are from right here right now. This is the suicide note of Kanaphan Pantrakoon, a laundry worker in a hospital in Thailand, stuck on a temporary contract for 17 years.
Despite Thailand’s history of military rule, and severe political repression of democratic opposition and the muslim population, trade unions exist there. The unions and progressive political movements in Thailand exist, at high cost to their key activists who are subject to arbitrary arrest under the Lese Majeste legislation, job loss and disappearances. This includes the re-arrests last week of opposition political leaders including Somyot Pruksakasemsuk who was released last year after a 7 year period in prison due to, well, nothing really.
Maybe because of the concrete nature of the threat to life that this environment poses, political activists and health workers have not been easily fobbed off with romantic gestures and deification into ‘white angels’. Instead their campaigns over decades have gone to the material heart of the matter, fighting against temporary contracts and precarious work as the basis for fighting other inequalities such as health and human rights.
The health inequalities literature is now part of our everyday. Data is incomplete but sufficient and most people have heard of Marmot. Where it is not clear is within our social consciousness that the link between precarity and poverty, class or caste, ethnicity and race are clearly mapped onto occupations and life expectations. In part because of the complexity of the data we have not seen something that is crystal clear on the frontline, that occupational and public health can’t be clearly distinguished. People in precarious work are paid less, live in worse housing, have to use public transport and don’t have the option to work from home which makes it a game of tag establishing responsibilities.
We are also familiar with the profoundly political frontline of vaccine production, and who holds the rights to produce life saving medication. It took us decades to understand to the point of action that HIV/AIDS would only be tackled through generic production of anti-retrovirals in the global south. Donations and self-sacrifice will not ultimately allow us to manage pandemics on a global scale, as any nurse in Thailand can tell you.
Being treated as a temporary worker, exposes us to more than the obvious threats of low income and poor representation. It exposes us to anger and frustration, to deep depression and hopelessness, of violence and suicide. The extraordinary paradox of working in healthcare for 17 years doing one of the most important jobs in a contagion and yet feeling of no value should make us breathless.
Thailand is a world away and yet it’s not because it shows us something about ourselves. That we continue with a system that undervalues workers in genuinely key sectors during a pandemic – such as cleaning, caring and call centres. That we tolerate some kind of natural selection in work where we might (just might) consider paying nurses a living wage but not other health care workers carrying out vital functions. That despite the very obvious link between how workers are treated and their health outcomes, we sign off whole sectors to be exposed to unnecessary risk.
But Thailand’s most precarious health care workers, along with the growing self-organised unions such as United Voices of the World, show us that through the steady and brave work of ordinary activists and negotiators some things can still be done to reset the sprit level. To watch the video Dreaming of Decent Work: Thai health care workers in the Covid-19 crisis (English), created by a group of the bravest people I know click on the link below.
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