PAY day falls on a Friday, it’s raining and Bangkok grinds to a halt. No point in moaning. We all know the solution. Go home early or stay late.
WE love Bangkok’s vibrant street life, and it remains a major attraction for tourists. So can you imagine what it feels like when a first-time visitor who’s enjoying the sights and sounds of Sukhumvit is suddenly approached by a man in a smart uniform bedecked with badges and told he or she has just broken the law and now faces a hefty fine? The crime is to have dropped litter, often something as small and insignificant as a piece of paper, or the butt of a cigarette, on the footpath. This usually innocent mistake equates to breaking the law and the penalty can be as much as 2,000 baht, a substantial sum for the majority of tourists. The normal reaction is one of confusion, shock and fear, especially in the company of a man who looks very much like a very serious policeman (he’s actually not a cop, but a city official with much reduced powers).
Most law-breakers quickly apologise for their simple oversight and hope to be on their way. But not all. A few are marched off to a booth where they pay a fine, which is not always accompanied by an appropriate receipt. It’s a frightening experience that leaves offenders with a bitter taste of Bangkok officialdom.
While it is right and proper that any effort to keep Bangkok’s streets clean should be applauded, there is something deeply disturbing about the way tourists are targeted by these officials. Sukhumvit, in particular, is home to countless vendors, some of whom inevitably litter the sidewalks. They seem to get away with it, however. Motorcylists are also not permitted to use the sidewalks, but they too are ignored by the same city officials who pick on tourists. Then at night, these public footpaths are packed with noisy open-air bars selling alcohol, again with impunity. Why this happens is obvious to anyone who knows the double standards that often apply here. Tourists don’t, and after paying up to 2,000 baht for such a minor infringement they may not return.
THE word ‘hero’ is bandied around much too readily nowadays, but few really deserve such a nomination. In this issue of The BigChilli we feature someone who genuinely lives up to the dictionary definition of “a person of extreme courage.” He is Edwin Wiek, a softly-spoken Dutchman of steely resolve who devotes his life to rescuing and looking after animals injured by humans. Edwin was, and still could be, a successful businessman, but he realized in an epiphany that there is more to life than just making money. Against all kinds of odds, including physical threats from corrupt officials and nefarious traders in wildlife, he now runs a Rescue Centre near the beach resort of Hua Hin that provides safe shelter for more than 400 damaged animals. It’s certainly no money-making scheme and Edwin relies on the generosity of sponsors and a stream of volunteers to make the project viable.
His objectives also include naming and shaming those who profit massively by the exploitation and killing of Thailand’s precious wildlife. Every day, Edwin wakes to the possibility that he may not see tomorrow. But he carries on his wonderful work regardless. Is this not the real meaning of a hero?
WHEN the now-venerable Rolling Stone magazine apologizes to the conspiracy theorists of the world for not having taken them seriously in the past, you know it’s time for all of us to be a little more skeptical about what we’re told by governments, politicians, bankers and even the media. What turned Rolling Stone was a series of related corruption stories involving the financial sector, suggesting the world’s largest banks may be fixing the prices of almost everything. “The world is a rigged game,” it wrote.
The magazine is one of a growing number of relatively small, independent media that are questioning who and what really controls this world. Their voices would have been extinguished in the past, but thanks to the Internet and possibly also a general disillusionment with mainstream media, their refusal to accept what the ‘establishment’ tells us to believe is winning support on a grand scale – and in the process making some people feel extremely uncomfortable.
For instance, the US government and its police enforcers can’t be too happy at the way these alternative news sources are picking holes in their handling and portrayal of the recent tragic bombing in Boston. And it’s down to the same sources that doubts about the official explanation of 9/11 continue to be raised, along with NATO’s justification for the Iraq war and the occupation of Afghanistan, not to mention the secret objectives of organizations like the Bilderberg Group and even the Federal Reserve of America.
The days when conspiracy theorists were dismissed as cranks are over. Ask the editors at Rolling Stone.
IT’S no secret that building sites and factories in Thailand have long been magnets for cheap labor from neighboring countries. More recently, non-Thais have also been filling jobs like maids, nannies, mechanics and gas station attendants. Now the hotel and catering industry has joined this unstoppable trend, employing people from the Philippines, Vietnam, India and Nepal to fill positions Thais no longer want, at least at the salaries offered. It’s a convenient arrangement, with foreigners happy to be paid this country’s official minimum wage, and sometimes less, because it’s more than they could expect back home. And their Thai employers are happy because it translates as lower labor costs. The government may be happy too because it helps to keep down the cost of living.
It is entirely probable that some of these foreign workers are not legal, but so far no one seems to be unduly worried. It’s going to happen anyway, once the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) introduces the free flow of labor amongst its members, apparently sometime after 2015.
So, until and when that occurs, many businesses requiring unskilled labor will only be able to function effectively by employing these foreign workers.
Interestingly, Thailand’s booming economy and the shortage of skilled workers have pushed up salaries to the point where companies might start considering other non-Thai employees. New graduates command a minimum starting salary of 20,000 baht per month, and the rate for more experienced personnel increases rapidly thereafter. Pay of 80,000 baht is not uncommon for junior executives, 100,000 baht for middle executives, and so on. Clearly, remuneration at this level impinges on profitability and, in the case of companies operating in international markets, competiveness.
There is an irony in all this. Vast pools of unemployed and highly skilled labor now languish in Europe and North America. Despite the high cost of living there, jobs in certain towns and cities are so few and far between that people are prepared to accept salaries considerably below their real worth. A recent British TV documentary about the high levels of unemployment in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil revealed the case of a well-educated 30-year-old family man who was pleased to secure a job at a salary equivalent to 25,000 baht a month (at present UK pound to Thai baht exchange rates), even though it involved a lengthy daily journey to the city of Cardiff. He thought he was fortunate.
Solving Europe’s employment problems is not the responsibility of Thailand, of course. But it is equally true that this country’s spiraling labor costs could imperil its progress. ASEAN may be able to fill the employment gap to a certain extent, but Thailand may well have to look farther afield for more qualified and experienced workers to continue its economic development.