Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (Rama X) as head of state. On March 24, Thailand held the first national election after five years of rule by a junta-led National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The NCPO-backed Phalang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and 18 supporting parties won a majority in the lower house, and in June they retained as prime minister NCPO leader Prayut Chan-o-Cha, the leader of the 2014 coup and a retired army general. The election was generally peaceful with few reported irregularities, although observers noted that a restrictive legal framework and selective enforcement of campaign regulations by the Election Commission favored PPRP-aligned parties.
The Royal Thai Police (RTP) and the Royal Thai Armed Forces share responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country. The police report to the Office of the Prime Minister; the armed forces report to the Ministry of Defense. The Border Patrol Police have special authority and responsibility in border areas to combat insurgent movements. While more authority has been returned to civilian authorities following the election, they still do not maintain full control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by or on behalf of the government; torture by government officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; political prisoners; political interference in the judiciary; censorship, website blocking, and criminal libel laws; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association including harassment and occasional violence against human rights activists and government critics; refoulement of refugees facing threats to their life or freedom; restrictions on political participation; significant acts of corruption; and forced child labor.
Authorities took some steps to investigate and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. Official impunity, however, continued to be a problem, especially in the southernmost provinces, where martial law, the Emergency Decree of 2005, and the 2008 Internal Security Act remained in effect in certain districts.
The Ministry of Defense requires service members to receive human rights training, and the Royal Thai Police (RTP) requires all cadets at its national academy to complete a course in human rights law.
Insurgents in the southernmost provinces committed human rights abuses and made attacks on government security forces and civilian targets.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. This right, however, was restricted by laws and government actions. For example the government imposed legal restrictions on criticism of the government and monarchy, favored progovernment media organizations in regulatory actions, harassed antigovernment critics, monitored the media and internet, blocked websites, and used criminal defamation laws to limit freedom of expression, including for the press.
Although laws and regulations that could restrict media freedom remained in effect prior to the March election, there was a significant increase in criticism of the junta during the pre-election period, continuing a trend that started in early 2018 when the junta began loosening some civil restrictions. While government stations and pro-junta media had a large presence in the period before the election, neutral and opposition media operated with considerable freedom.
On July 9, Prime Minister Prayut lifted 76 orders instituted under NCPO rule, including ones that effectively prohibited criticism made with “malice” and “false information” intended to “discredit” the NCPO or the military. Press restrictions still in place include orders that give military personnel the authority to prohibit the propagation of any publication that was likely to “cause public alarm” or which “contains false information likely to cause public misunderstanding” that could potentially threaten national security; and that allow authorities to shut down media critical of the military regime.
Freedom of Expression: The lese majeste (“royal insult”) prohibition makes it a crime–punishable by a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment for each offense–to criticize, insult, or threaten the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent. The law also allows citizens to file lese majeste complaints against one other. On June 11, political activist Srisuwan Janya filed a petition asking the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to probe whether Future Forward Party member of parliament and spokesperson Pannika Wanich had posted certain photos to her Facebook page nearly a decade earlier that were insulting towards King Rama IX.
The government continued to conduct lese majeste trials from previous years in secret and prohibited public disclosure of the alleged offenses’ contents. International and domestic human rights organizations and academics expressed concern about the lese majeste prohibition’s negative effect on freedom of expression.
According to the local NGO Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, as of September, 98 lese majeste cases had been filed since the 2014 coup, 67 of which have been concluded. In some of these cases, the accused committed the alleged offense prior to the 2014 coup, but authorities only filed charges afterwards. According to current-year statistics from the Department of Corrections, approximately 65 persons were awaiting trial or imprisoned on lese majeste charges as of August.
Two long-standing lese majeste cases saw new developments during the year. On June 11, the Bangkok Military Court allowed Siraphop Kon-arut, a political activist and writer, to be released on bail after five years’ detention on lese majeste and computer-crime charges. On July 17, former pop singer and actor Thanat Thanawatcharanon, also known as Tom Dundee, was granted a royal pardon after serving a five-year prison sentence for a lese majeste offense.
Human rights activists reported that while lese majeste prosecutions declined, the government increasingly turned to computer-crime and “sedition” legislation to restrict free speech and silence critics. Prosecutors brought a growing number of cases against members of the Organization for Thai Federation, whom authorities accused of trying to alter the country’s current political arrangement. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, local authorities initiated 11 cases against 20 individuals accused of sedition, being members of a secret society, and violating computer-crime and public-assembly laws.
In October the Fourth Army Region of the Internal Security Operations Command covering the southern provinces filed a police complaint against 12 persons–including several opposition-party leaders and academics–accusing them of sedition for their remarks during a September 28 forum on resolving the conflict in the southern part of the country. At the center of the complaint are comments by Chalita Banthuwong, a lecturer at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, who, in discussing possible solutions to the southern insurgency, allegedly proposed amending the section of the 2017 constitution that affirms Thailand as a unitary state. The complaint alleges the panel members violated legislation barring sedition and carrying a jail term of up to seven years. The seven accused opposition-party leaders responded by defending their right to free speech and filing a counter complaint accusing two army officials of defamation and giving false information to the authorities.
New regulations on constitutional court procedures effective as of October empower the court to take legal action against individuals deemed to have unfairly criticized its decisions. The new regulations prohibit distortion of facts, laws, or verdicts related to the court’s adjudication of cases; dishonest criticism; and sarcasm or mockery of the court, according to OHCHR. In August the court summoned an academic to give statements following his criticism of the court’s decision to suspend FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit but not 32 other members of parliament similarly accused of illegal media shareholding. Some human rights activists conveyed concern that the court’s new posture could restrict free speech.
There were numerous reports of security forces harassing citizens who publicly criticized the military government, including by visiting or surveilling their residences or places of employment. Prior to the March election, Pheu Thai Party parliamentary candidates in the country’s northeast claimed that security personnel made visits to their homes, seemingly to intimidate them.
From March through June, three prominent antigovernment critics were physically assaulted in several incidents by unidentified armed assailants. On March 31, two unidentified men broke into the house of Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich and beat him. On May 25, he was attacked again when riding his motorcycle by six assailants who knocked him off his bike, rammed their motorcycles into his back, and beat him with metal bars. Ekachai Hongkangwan was hospitalized May 13 for three days after being beaten by three men as he emerged from a public bus in front of the Bangkok Criminal Court, where he was to give testimony in a sedition case against him for organizing a protest demanding the government hold elections; this was reportedly the tenth time Ekachai was the victim of a physical assault or property crime since March 2018. Sirawith “Ja New” Serithiwat was attacked on June 2 and June 28, with the second ambush seriously injuring his eye and leaving him hospitalized in intensive care. After public outcry by human rights and civil liberties activists over the failure of authorities to make arrests in any of these cases, Prime Minister Prayut called on police to step up their investigations but as of September, the cases remained unsolved.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but faced significant impediments to operating freely. The outgoing NCPO government lifted several orders restricting press freedoms.
On February 12, however, prior to the March election, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) ordered a 15-day shutdown of the opposition television channel Voice TV for airing the “Wake Up News-Tonight Thailand” program. The station carried what the government called biased content that could instigate political unrest.
In April the government invoked an order to waive the terms of all digital television operators’ license payments at a combined cost of 13.6 billion baht (THB) ($453 million). This action raised questions about the government’s subsidy approach, which could be interpreted as a benefit for progovernment media organizations and indirect intervention in freedom of press.
The 2017 constitution requires owners of newspapers and other mass media organizations to be citizens. Government entities owned and controlled most radio and broadcast television stations.
In August writer and academic Sarinee Achavanuntakul was summoned by the Election Cases Division of the Supreme Court after she was accused of contempt of court for publishing an article in the Krungthep Turakij newspaper commenting on the court’s handing of parliamentarians’ media shares. The court dropped the case after Sarinee published a subsequent article clarifying her characterization of the court’s decision, which she acknowledged may have been misleading. Also in August, Kovit Wongsurawat, a Thammasat University political science professor, was summoned to the constitutional court for a tweet criticizing the court for suspending FFP Leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit for owning media shares while declining to suspend other parliamentarians who held media shares. He apologized to the court and posted a tweet clarifying his intent before the court found him guilty of contempt, although no penalty or punishment was imposed.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: An NCPO order remains in effect empowering the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to suspend or revoke the licenses of radio or television operators broadcasting content deemed false, defamatory to the monarchy, harmful to national security, or unnecessarily critical of the government. Authorities monitored media content from all media sources, including international press. Local practice leans toward self-censorship, particularly regarding anything that might be critical of the monarchy or members of the royal family.
The Emergency Decree in the conflict-affected southernmost provinces empowers the government “to prohibit publication and distribution of news and information that may cause the people to panic or with an intention to distort information.” It also authorizes the government to censor news considered a threat to national security.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a maximum fine of THB 200,000 ($6,660) and two years’ imprisonment. Military and business figures filed criminal defamation and libel cases against political and environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and politicians.
On August 28, poultry firm Thammakaset dropped its civil-defamation case against human rights activist Sutharee “Kratik” Wannasiri, but the company continued pursing criminal-defamation charges against her that carry a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to THB 200,000 ($6,670). Thammakaset had demanded THB five million ($167,000) in compensation for comments Sutharee made on Twitter in 2017, arguing her social-media posts damaged the company’s reputation and seeking an apology. Thammakaset dropped the case after Sutharee made a statement in court saying she “felt sorry” if some of the content in the posts was “inaccurate.” Criminal-defamation charges still pending are scheduled for a hearing in February 2020.
National Security: Various NCPO orders issued under the interim constitution, later extended by the 2017 constitution, continue to provide authorities the right to restrict distribution of material deemed to threaten national security even with the new government in place.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government enforced some exceptions which it claimed were for “maintaining the security of the state, public order, public welfare, town and country planning, or youth welfare.”
In-country Movement: The government restricted the internal movement of members of hill tribes and other minority groups who were not citizens but held government-issued identity cards and who were registered as stateless persons. Authorities prohibited holders of such cards from traveling outside their home provinces without permission from the district chief. Offenders are subject to fines or a jail term of 45 to 60 days. Persons without cards may not travel at all. Human rights organizations reported that police at inland checkpoints often asked for bribes in exchange for allowing stateless persons to move from one province to another.
Foreign Travel: Local authorities required resident noncitizens, including thousands of ethnic Shan and other non-hill-tribe minorities, to seek permission from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior for foreign travel.
Despite the NCPO government’s repeal of most overseas travel bans in December 2018 and the dissolution of that government in July, travel restrictions remained in effect for some individuals as a condition of bail agreements dating back to the NCPO government. Critics maintained these restrictions were politically motivated; the exact number of these cases was unknown.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government usually cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although with some restrictions.
The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers remained inconsistent. Nevertheless, authorities hosted significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, generally provided protection against their expulsion or return, and allowed persons fleeing fighting or other incidents of violence in neighboring countries to cross the border and remain until conflict ceased. Moreover, authorities permitted urban refugees recognized by UNHCR and registered camp-based Burmese refugees to resettle to third countries.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of November, 271 Rohingya individuals remained in detention, 108 in IDCs and 163 in shelters. From 2013-2015, including during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015, 64 individuals arrived in the country irregularly. The other 207 individuals arrived in the country irregularly since 2016.
Authorities continued to treat all refugees and asylum seekers who lived in urban areas and who do not have valid visas as illegal migrants. Persons categorized as illegal migrants are legally subject to arrest and detention. Authorities permitted bail only for certain categories of detained refugees and asylum seekers, such as mothers, children, and persons with medical conditions. Authorities applied the criteria for allowing bail inconsistently.
Humanitarian organizations reported concerns that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers faced overcrowded conditions, lack of exercise opportunities, limited freedom of movement, and abusive treatment by authorities in the immigration detention centers (IDCs).
As part of an overall policy to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country, immigration police in Bangkok sometimes arrested and detained asylum seekers and refugees, including women and children. As of August there were approximately 320 refugees and asylum seekers residing in IDCs, and 49 Uighurs have been detained in the country since 2015.
Refoulement: Persons from Burma, if arrested without refugee status or legal permission to be in the country, were often escorted back to the Burmese border. Authorities sometimes provided preferential treatment to certain Burmese ethnic minorities, such as ethnic Shan individuals, allowing them greater leeway to remain in Thailand without formal authorization. Outside IDCs, government officials did not distinguish between asylum-seeking Burmese and other undocumented Burmese, regarding all as illegal migrants. If caught outside of camps without permission the authorities generally allowed registered and verified Burmese refugees to return to their camp.
Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. One Cambodian UNHCR-recognized person of concern, however, was forcibly returned to Cambodia in February. Human rights NGOs alleged that in January, Thai authorities collaborated with Vietnamese security officials to return forcibly to Vietnam blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who had publicly expressed a desire to register with UNHCR.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government did not establish a system for providing protection to refugees. On December 25, the government published a new regulation (referred to as the “National Screening Mechanism” by UNHCR and NGOs) that provides individuals whom the government determines to be protected persons with temporary protection from deportation, access to health care, and access (for children) to education. The regulation does not provide for work permits to protected persons. The regulation will go into effect 180 days from the publication date.
UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to some groups of refugees outside the official camps remained limited. Its access to asylum seekers in the IDCs to conduct status interviews and monitor new arrivals varied throughout the year. Authorities generally allowed resettlement countries to conduct processing activities in the IDCs, and humanitarian organizations were able to provide health care, nutritional support, and other humanitarian assistance. Access varied, reportedly depending on the preferences of each IDC chief. Authorities at IDC Suan Phlu in Bangkok, for example, restricted access by UNHCR, IOM, and other NGOs during the second half of the year, claiming a need to expand health facilities.
The government allowed UNHCR to monitor the protection status of, and pursue solutions for, approximately 95,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in nine camps along the border with Burma. NGOs funded by the international community provided basic humanitarian assistance in the camps, including health care, food, education, shelter, water, sanitation, vocational training, and other services.
The government facilitated third-country resettlement to five countries for more than 2,200 Burmese refugees from the camps as of August. Refugees residing in the nine camps along the border who are not registered with the government were ineligible for third-country resettlement unless they were included in a 2015 verification process or had serious medical or protection concerns. Separately, the government coordinated with Burmese authorities to document and return to Burma registered camp residents who elected to participate in a voluntary repatriation program. As of August, 1,039 registered refugees had voluntarily returned to Burma in four tranches under the program since 2016.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees residing in the nine refugee camps on the border with Burma had no freedom of movement outside of their camps. A refugee apprehended outside the official camps is subject to possible harassment, fines, detention, deregistration, and deportation. Authorities sometimes allowed camp residents limited travel outside of the camps for activities such as medical care.
Refugees and asylum seekers were not eligible to participate in the official nationality-verification process, which allows migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos with verified nationality and passports to travel throughout the country.
Employment: The law prohibits refugees from working in the country. The government allowed undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to work legally in certain economic sectors if they registered with authorities and followed a prescribed process to document their status (see section 7.d.). The law allows victims of trafficking and witnesses who cooperate with pending court cases to work legally during their trial and up to two years (with possible extensions) after the end of their trial involvement. Work permits must be linked to a specific employer. For certain victims of trafficking, including Rohingya, identifying suitable employment opportunities for the issuance of work permits remained a challenge. Registration, medical check-up, and health-insurance fees remained a deterrent for prospective employers of victims of trafficking.
Access to Basic Services: The international community provided basic services for refugees living inside the nine camps on the border with Burma. For needs beyond primary care, a medical referral system allows refugees to seek other necessary medical services. For the urban-refugee and asylum-seeker population living in Bangkok, access to basic health services was minimal. Three NGOs funded in part by the international community provided or facilitated primary and mental health-care services. A UNHCR-led health panel coordinated referrals of the most urgent medical cases to local hospitals.
Since Burmese refugee children living in the camps generally did not have access to the government education system, NGOs continued to support camp-based community organizations to provide educational opportunities, and some were able to partially coordinate their curriculum with the Ministry of Education. In Bangkok some refugee communities formed their own unofficial schools to provide education for their children. Others sought to learn Thai with support from UNHCR, because the law provides that government schools must admit children of any legal status who can speak, read, and write Thai with some degree of proficiency.
Temporary Protection: Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government continued to protect from deportation the majority of Rohingya migrants detained by authorities, including those who arrived in the country irregularly during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015. During the year, authorities also placed more than 200 Rohingya detained while transiting Thailand into Ministry of Social Development and Human Security-run shelters and protected them from deportation. UNHCR had access to these provincial shelters while authorities conducted formal screenings of the migrants’ eligibility for benefits as victims of trafficking. These Rohingya migrants, however, were in most cases confined to shelters and did not have freedom of movement or access to work permits.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The 2017 constitution largely provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. On March 24, the country held national elections after five years of rule following a 2014 coup by the military-led National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The campaign season was mostly peaceful with many political parties competing for seats and conducting political rallies for the first time in five years. A restrictive legal framework and selective enforcement of campaign regulations by the Election Commission, however, impacted the final outcome in favor of the PPRP-aligned parties.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: In July activist groups filed a complaint with the State Audit Commission to request an investigation into possible procurement fraud and misuse of state funds after the Royal Thai Police paid an estimated THB 300 million ($10 million) above market price to purchase a government jet for Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s travel. In December 2018 the NACC, citing insufficient evidence, dismissed charges against Prawit for failing to disclose assets, including watches and rings worth an estimated THB 45 million ($1.5 million).In June former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, living in the United Kingdom, was convicted in absentia of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison for his involvement in a 2003 lottery scheme.
In July, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems reached a plea agreement with Japanese prosecutors over charges that one of its employees paid a bribe to a Thai civil servant to allow for the offload of plant equipment at a Thai port facility.
In September, NACC Secretary General Mana Nimitmongkol announced allegations that some government officials had paid THB 9.75 million ($325,000) to THB 29.4 million ($980,000) to secure high-ranking jobs in the newly elected government, on the understanding they would approve certain projects once appointed. As of November no charges or investigations against any specific officials were revealed.
Petty corruption and bribe taking were widespread among police, who were required to purchase their own uniforms and weapons. In September a police colonel from Uthai Thani province was arrested after the bus he was riding on was stopped at a police checkpoint and officers found 200,000 methamphetamine pills in his luggage. He was suspended from duty and faces disciplinary action. The national police chief announced an investigation to find other participants in the smuggling ring. By year’s end, the investigation remained ongoing.
Financial Disclosure: Financial disclosure laws and regulations require elected and appointed public officials to disclose assets and income publicly according to standardized forms. The law penalizes officials who fail to submit declarations, submit inaccurate declarations, or conceal assets. Penalties include a five-year political activity ban, asset seizure, and discharge from position, as well as a maximum imprisonment of six months, a maximum fine of THB 10,000 ($333), or both.
In August the NACC indicted its own deputy secretary general, Prayat Puangjumpa, for concealing his assets on his mandatory disclosure. Prayat was found to have concealed foreign assets–a London townhouse that NACC said was worth $6.9 million and $400,000 in other assets held abroad–by listing them in his wife’s name. He later claimed that his wife was holding the assets for a third party. The case was ongoing as of December.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A wide variety of domestic and international human rights organizations operated in the country. Orders in effect under the NCPO affected NGO operations, including prohibitions on political gatherings and activities, as well as media restrictions. NGOs that dealt with sensitive political matters, such as political reform or opposition to government-sponsored development projects, faced periodic harassment.
Human rights workers focusing on violence in the southernmost provinces were particularly vulnerable to harassment and intimidation by government agents and insurgent groups. The government accorded very few NGOs tax-exempt status, which sometimes hampered their ability to secure funding.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: According to the United Nations, there were no developments regarding official visits previously requested by the UN working group on disappearances; by the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, and on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; or by the UN special rapporteurs on the situations of human rights defenders, migrants, internally displaced persons, torture, indigenous peoples, and sexual identity and gender orientation. As of September, 21 official visit requests from UN special procedures were awaiting government approval.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The independent National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) has a mission to protect human rights and to produce an annual country report. The commission received 727 complaints from January through December. Of these 446, 52 were accepted for further investigation and 22 related to alleged abuses by police. Human rights groups continued to criticize the commission for not filing lawsuits against human rights violators on its own behalf or on behalf of complainants. Internationally recognized human rights activists Angkhana Neelapaijit and Tuenjai Deetes resigned from the NHRCT on July 31, reportedly due to dissatisfaction with the commission’s internal workings that prevented commissioners from receiving complaints directly from the public and curtailed their engagement with civil society. Following two earlier resignations, their departure reduced the commission staff from its usual seven members to three. In November the presidents of the Supreme Court of Justice and of the supreme administrative court exercised their authority to temporarily appoint four commissioners, bringing the body back to its full complement of seven members. The new appointees, like the three existing commissioners, serve in an acting capacity until the government completes the process of selecting permanent members that was supposed to occur in 2017 following the promulgation of the new constitution.
The Office of the Ombudsman is an independent agency empowered to consider and investigate complaints filed by any citizen. Following an investigation, the office may refer a case to a court for further review or provide recommendations for further action to the appropriate agency. The office examines all petitions, but it may not compel agencies to comply with its recommendations. From October 2018 through September, the office received 2,609 new petitions, of which 637 related to allegations of police abuses.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides that a person shall enjoy the liberty to unite and form an association, cooperative, union, organization, community, or any other group. Labor laws guarantee the rights of workers in private-sector and state-owned enterprises (SOE) to organize trade unions and engage in collective bargaining. Civil servants have the liberty to assemble as a group, provided that such assembly does not affect the efficiency of national administration and continuity of public services and does not have a political objective.
Among wage and salary workers, 3.5 percent are unionized and only 34 out of 77 provinces have labor unions.
The law allows private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their choosing without prior authorization, to bargain collectively, and to conduct legal strikes, although these rights come with restrictions. For example, workers have the rights to strike legally if they have notified the authorities 24 hours in advance, if a demonstration is not on public roads, and if it does not violate any laws.
When bargaining collectively, workers can submit a set of demands through the union if at least one-fifth of the workforce are members of that union; or at workplaces without a union, if they have signatures from at least 15 percent of the workforce. Under the law, only workers with the same employer or in the same industry may form a union. Contract workers, even if working in the same factory and doing the same job as full-time workers, cannot join the union because they are classified as belonging to the service industry while full-time workers come under the “manufacturing industry.” Nevertheless, the law makes contract workers eligible for the same benefits as those enjoyed by union members. The inability for contract workers and full-time workers to join the same union could diminish the benefits of bargaining collectively as a larger group. In addition, short-term contract workers are less likely to join unions for fear of losing their jobs. Labor advocates claim that many companies hire contract workers to undermine unionization efforts. A survey of the auto-parts and electronics industries found that more than 45 percent of the workforce consists of contract workers, and about half of them have short-term contracts.
The law allows one union per SOE. Banks, trains, airlines, airports, marine ports, and postal services are among those industries owned by SOEs. If an SOE union’s membership falls below 25 percent of the eligible workforce, regulations require dissolution of the union.
The law restricts formal links between unions of SOEs and their private-sector counterparts because they are governed by two separate laws.
The law allows employees at workplaces without a union to submit collective demands if at least 15 percent of employees are listed as supporting that demand. Employees in private enterprises with more than 50 workers may establish “employee committees” to represent workers’ financial interests and to negotiate with employers; employees may also form “welfare committees” to represent workers’ non-financial interests. Employee and welfare committees may offer employers suggestions but are barred from submitting labor demands or going on strike. The law prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions against workers for their participation in these committees and from obstructing the work of the committees. Union leaders often join employee and welfare committees to avail themselves of this legal protection. Within 11,600 enterprises which have more than 50 workers in the country, there are 1,689 labor unions, 14,888 welfare committees, and 739 employee committees. NGOs report that welfare committees are uncommon in the border regions where the majority of workers are migrants.
The government may block private-sector strikes with national security implications or with negative repercussions on the population at large, but it did not invoke this provision during the year.
Strikes and lockouts are prohibited at SOEs and penalties for violations include imprisonment, fines, or both.
In March 2018 the Supreme Court ordered seven union leaders of the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to pay a fine of THB 15 million ($500,000) plus accrued interest for leading an illegal strike after a train derailment in 2009 despite the finding of the International Labor Organization (ILO) that union leaders’ actions were in line with international standards on the role of unions in occupational safety and health (OSH). To execute the court order, the SRT in November 2018 started to garnish the wages and seize the assets of union leaders. In addition, several SRT union leaders were charged with corruption and face imprisonment of up to 10 years and fines. In October the NACC filed criminal corruption charges against the seven union leaders. If convicted, the leaders could potentially face up to five years in prison.
Noncitizen migrant workers, whether registered or undocumented, do not have the right to form unions or serve as union officials. Migrants can join unions organized and led by Thai citizens. Migrant-worker participation in unions is low due to language barriers, weak understanding of legal rights, frequent changes in employment status, membership fees, restrictive union regulations, and segregation of citizen workers from migrant workers by industry and by zones (particularly in border and coastal areas). In practice, unregistered associations, community-based organizations, and religious groups often represent the interests of migrant workers. In workplaces where the majority of workers are migrants, migrant workers are sometimes elected to the welfare committees and employee committees. Migrant workers are allowed to make collective demands if they obtain the names and signatures of at least 15 percent of employees. NGOs reported few cases, however, where migrant workers’ collective demands were successful in effecting change, particularly along the border areas.
The law does not protect union members against antiunion actions by employers until their union is registered. To register a union, at least 10 workers must submit their names to the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare (DLPW). The verification process of vetting the names and employment status with the employer exposes the workers to potential retaliation before registration is complete. Moreover, the law requires that union officials be full-time employees of the company or SOE and prohibits permanent union staff.
The law protects employees and union members from criminal or civil liability for participating in negotiations with employers, initiating a strike, organizing a rally, or explaining labor disputes to the public. The law does not protect employees and union members from criminal charges for reputational damage, however, and NGOs report that reputational damage charges are sometimes used to intimidate union members and employees. The law also does not prohibit lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, or silence critics through costly legal defense. In March the government amended the Criminal Procedure Code to protect defendants in frivolous libel cases from prosecution. Under this amended law, a court may dismiss a defamation lawsuit if it is considered dishonest. Human rights defenders hope this amendment will help minimize strategic litigation against workers and provide protection for honest whistleblowers. In June human rights lawyers assisted five migrant workers in filing a retaliatory lawsuit claiming compensation for lost wages, reputational damage, and legal fees after the courts dismissed the employer’s lawsuit against the migrant workers on charges of illegal entry, illegal stay, and theft.
The law prohibits termination of employment of legal strikers but permits employers to hire workers or use subcontract workers to replace strikers. The legal requirement to call a general meeting of trade union members and obtain strike approval by at least 50 percent of union members constrained strike action, given that many factories use shift workers, making it difficult to make a quorum.
Labor-law enforcement was inconsistent and in some instances ineffective in protecting workers who participated in union activities. Employers may dismiss workers for any reason except participation in union activities, provided the employer pays severance. There were reports of workers dismissed for engaging in union activities, both before and after registration; in some cases, labor courts ordered workers reinstated. Labor courts or the Labor Relations Committee may make determinations on complaints of unfair dismissals or labor practices and may require compensation or reinstatement of workers or union leaders with wages and benefits equal to those received prior to dismissal. The Labor Relations Committee consists of representatives of employers, government, and workers groups, and there are associate labor court judges who represent workers and employers. There were reports employers attempted to negotiate terms of reinstatement after orders were issued, offering severance packages for voluntary resignation, denying reinstated union leaders access to work, or demoting workers to jobs with lower wages and benefits.
In some cases, judges awarded compensation in lieu of reinstatement when employers or employees claimed they could not work together peacefully; however, authorities rarely applied penalties for conviction of labor violations, which include imprisonment, a fine, or both. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Labor inspection increasingly focused on high-risk workplaces and the use of intelligence from civil society partners. Labor inspections, however, remained infrequent and the number of labor inspectors and resources were inadequate given the size of the workforce. Trade-union leaders suggested that inspectors should move beyond perfunctory document reviews toward more proactive inspections. Rights advocates reported that provincial-level labor inspectors often attempted to mediate cases, even when labor rights violations requiring penalties had been found.
There were reports employers used various techniques to weaken labor-union association and collective-bargaining efforts. These included replacing striking workers with subcontractors, which the law permits as long as strikers continue to receive wages; delaying negotiations by failing to show up at Labor Relations Committee meetings or sending non-decision makers to negotiate; threatening union leaders and striking workers; pressuring union leaders and striking workers to resign; dismissing union leaders, ostensibly for business reasons, violation of company rules, or negative attitudes toward the company; prohibiting workers from demonstrating in work zones; inciting violence, then using a court order to clamp down on protests; transferring union leaders to other branches, thus making them ineligible to participate in employee or welfare committees; transferring union leaders and striking workers to different, less desirable positions or stripping them of management authority; and supporting the registration of competing unions to circumvent established, uncooperative unions.
Employers sometimes filed lawsuits against union leaders and strikers for trespass, defamation, and vandalism. For instance, in 2015 the central labor court ordered four union leaders of Thai Airways to pay claims of damages in the amount of THB 326 million ($10,900,000) for causing reputational damage; the case is now pending a Supreme Court decision. The ILO expressed concern that the court decision ran counter to the principles of freedom of association, and that the excessive damages awarded were likely to have an intimidating effect on the Thai Airways Union and inhibit their legitimate union activities. Human rights defenders said lawsuits like these and threats to terminate the employment of union leaders had a chilling effect on freedoms of expression and association (also see section 7.b.).
NGOs and labor advocates reported incidents where their staff were followed or threatened by employers after they had been seen advocating for labor rights.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, except in the case of national emergency, war, martial law, or imminent public calamity. The prescribed penalties for human trafficking were sufficient to deter violations. The government amended the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act for the third time in five years. The new amendment defined forced labor as a stand-alone offense, and guaranteed access to services and protections for forced-labor victims similar to services and protections for human-trafficking victims. It also applied the same penalties when forced labor victims were seriously injured or killed. To implement the amendment, government agencies and non-government groups worked on revisions of subordinate regulations, victim-identification guidelines, and standard operating procedures. The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, the Ministry of Labor, and the Office of Attorney General organized training workshops for law enforcement and multidisciplinary teams to understand the changes to the law.
There were many reports that forced labor continued in fishing, agriculture, domestic work, and begging. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
NGOs acknowledged a decline in the most severe forms of labor exploitation in the fishing sector. Some NGOs, however, point to inconsistencies in enforcing labor laws, particularly around irregular or delayed payment of wages, illegal wage deductions, illegal recruitment fees, withholding of documents, and not providing written contracts in a language that workers understand. In March the government for the first time began to award accident compensation for all migrant fishery workers regardless of registration status.
Labor rights groups reported that some employers sought to prevent migrant workers from changing jobs or forced them to work by delaying wages, burying them in debt, or accusing them of theft. NGOs reported cases where employers colluded to blacklist workers who reported labor violations, joined unions, or changed jobs.
The government and NGOs reported a significant increase in the number of trafficking victims identified among smuggled migrants, particularly from Burma. Most of those cases involved transnational trafficking syndicates both in Thailand and in the country of origin. Many victims were subjected to deception, detention, starvation, human branding, and abuse during their journey. Traffickers sometimes destroyed the passports and identity documents of victims. Some victims were sold to different smugglers and subjected to debt bondage.
Private companies continued to pursue civil and criminal lawsuits against workers, NGOs, and journalists (also see section 7.a.). Since 2016, Thammakaset, a poultry farm owner in Lopburi Province, has filed 13 criminal and civil cases against 14 former employees, labor rights activists, and journalists on various charges such as criminal defamation, theft of timecards, and computer crime, most recently in May. Authorities and courts dismissed most of these complaints and ordered Thammakaset to pay THB 1.7 million ($56,600) in compensation for back wages, overtime, and holiday pay to 14 former employees for labor-law violations. As of September some of these cases were still pending a court decision.
The ILO noted that the law allowed for forced prison labor in several circumstances, including as punishment for participating in strikes or for holding or expressing certain political views.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law protects children from child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, use in illicit activities, and forced labor, but does not meet the international standard for prohibiting military recruitment of children by non-state armed groups. The law regulates the employment of children under age 18 and prohibits employment of children under 15. Children under 18 are prohibited from work in any activity involving metalwork, hazardous chemicals, poisonous materials, radiation, extreme temperatures, high noise levels, toxic microorganisms, operation of heavy equipment, and work underground or underwater. The law also prohibits children under 18 from workplaces deemed hazardous, such as slaughterhouses, gambling establishments, places where alcohol is sold, massage parlors, entertainment venues, sea-fishing vessels, and seafood processing establishments. As such, children ages 15 to 17 may legally engage in hazardous “home work” (work assigned by the hirer of an industrial enterprise to a homeworker to be produced or assembled outside of the workplace). The law provides limited coverage to child workers in some informal sectors, such as agriculture, domestic work, and home-based businesses. Self-employed children and children working outside of employment relationships, defined by the existence of an agreement or contract and the exchange of work against pay, are not protected under the national labor law, but they are protected under laws on child protection and trafficking in persons. Children participating in paid and non-paid Muay Thai (Thai boxing) competitions, however, are not protected under national labor law, and it is unclear whether child-protection legislation sufficiently protects child Muay Thai participants.
Penalties for violations of the law may include imprisonment or fines and have been largely effective as a deterrent. Parents of victims whom the court finds were “driven by unbearable poverty” can be exempt from penalties.
Government and private-sector entities used bone-density checks and dental examinations in an effort to identify potentially underage job applicants. Such tests, however, were not always conclusive. Labor inspectors used information from civil society to target inspections for child labor and forced labor.
Civil society and international organizations reported few cases of child labor in manufacturing, fishing, shrimping, and seafood processing. They attributed the decline to legal and regulatory changes in 2014 that expanded the number of hazardous-job categories in which children under 18 were prohibited from working and that in 2017 increased penalties for the use of child laborers.
NGOs, however, reported that some children from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and ethnic minority communities were working in informal sectors and small businesses, including farming, home-based businesses, restaurants, street vending, auto services, food processing, construction, domestic work, and begging. Some children were forced to work in prostitution, pornography, begging, and the production and trafficking of drugs (see section 6, Children). The Thailand Internet Crimes against Children task force investigated 19 cases of child-sex trafficking and 60 cases of possession of child-pornographic materials.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. The DLPW is the primary agency charged with enforcing child-labor laws and policies. In 2018 the government increased the number of labor inspectors and interpreters. During the year, 94 percent of labor inspections were targeted at fishing ports and high-risk workplaces including garment factories, shrimp and seafood processing, poultry and pig farms, auto repair shops, construction sites, and in service-sector businesses like restaurants, karaoke bars, hotels, and gas stations. The DLPW identified 99 cases involving 206 alleged violations of child-labor laws. In the majority of cases, employers were cited for failing to notify DLPW of employing children ages 15 to 18. Only 16 cases of underage child labor were found. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Observers noted several limiting factors in effective enforcement of child-labor laws, including insufficient labor inspectors, insufficient interpreters during labor inspections, ineffective inspection procedures (especially in hard-to-reach workplaces like private residences, small family-based business units, farms, and fishing boats), and a lack of official identity documents among young migrant workers from neighboring countries. A lack of public understanding of child-labor laws and standards was also an important factor.
In June the government published its first national working-children survey, using research methodology in line with international guidelines. This survey was the product of cooperation among the Ministry of Labor, the National Statistical Office (NSO), and the ILO. The survey revealed that of 10.47 million children ages 5 to 17, 3.9 percent were working children, including 1.7 percent who were child laborers (exploited working children)–1.3 percent in hazardous work, and an additional 0.4 percent in non-hazardous work. The majority of child laborers were doing hazardous work in household or family businesses (55 percent), in the areas of agriculture (56 percent), service trades (23 percent), and manufacturing (20 percent). Boys were in child labor more than girls and more than half of child laborers were not in school. Of the top three types of hazardous work which children performed in the country, 22 percent involved lifting heavy loads, 8 percent working in extreme conditions or at night, and 7 percent being exposed to dangerous chemicals and toxins.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Labor laws do not specifically prohibit discrimination in the workplace. The law does impose penalties of imprisonment or fines for anyone committing gender or gender-identity discrimination, including in employment decisions. A law requires workplaces with more than 100 employees to hire at least one worker with disabilities for every 100 workers.
Discrimination with respect to employment occurred against LGBTI persons, women, and migrant workers (also see section 7.e.). Government regulations require employers to pay equal wages and benefits for equal work, regardless of gender. Union leaders stated the wage differences for men and women were generally minimal and were mostly due to different skills, duration of employment, and types of jobs, as well as legal requirements which prohibit the employment of women in hazardous work. Nonetheless, a 2016 ILO report on migrant women in the country’s construction sector found female migrant workers consistently received less than their male counterparts, and more than half were paid less than the official minimum wage, especially for overtime work (see also section 6, Women).
In September 2018 the police cadet academy announced it would no longer admit female cadets. This decision was widely criticized as discriminatory and detrimental to the ability of the police force to identify some labor violations against women. Discrimination against persons with disabilities occurred in employment, access, and training. Advocacy groups for the rights of persons with disabilities filed a complaint on embezzlement and illegal deduction of wages from workers with disabilities in April. The case is under investigation by the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission.
Members of the LGBTI community faced frequent discrimination in the workplace, partly due to common prejudices and a lack of protective laws and policies on discrimination. Transgender workers reportedly faced even greater constraints, and their participation in the workforce was often limited to a few professions, such as cosmetology and entertainment.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage was three times higher than the government-calculated poverty line.
The maximum workweek by law is 48 hours, or eight hours per day over six days, with an overtime limit of 36 hours per week. Employees engaged in “dangerous” work, such as the chemical, mining, or other industries involving heavy machinery, may work a maximum of 42 hours per week and may not work overtime. Petrochemical industry employees may not work more than 12 hours per day but may work continuously for a maximum period of 28 days.
The law requires safe and healthy workplaces, including for home-based businesses, and prohibits pregnant women and children younger than 18 from working in hazardous conditions. The law also requires the employer to inform employees about hazardous working conditions prior to employment. Workers do not have the right to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
Legal protections do not apply equally to all sectors. For example, the daily minimum wage does not apply to employees in the public sector, SOEs, domestic work, nonprofit work, and seasonal agricultural work. Ministerial regulations provide household domestic workers some protections regarding leave, minimum age, and payment of wages, but they do not address minimum wage, regular working hours, social security, or maternity leave. NGOs reported contract workers in the public sector received wages below minimum wage as they were governed by separate laws.
A large income gap remained between formal and informal employment, with workers in nonagricultural sectors earning three times that of those in the agricultural sector, on average. According to government statistics, 55 percent of the labor force worked in the informal economy, with limited protection under labor laws and the social security system.
The ILO and many NGOs reported that daily minimum wages, overtime, and holiday-pay regulations were not well enforced in small enterprises, in certain areas (especially rural or border areas), or in certain sectors (especially agriculture, construction, and sea fishing). Labor unions estimated 5-10 percent of workers received less than the minimum wage; however, the share of workers who received less than minimum wage was likely higher among unregistered migrant workers and in the border region. Unregistered migrant workers rarely sought redress under the law due to their lack of legal status and the fear of losing their livelihood. In September police raided and interviewed hundreds of workers in medium-size garment factories in Mae Sot along the Burma border after the media reported that workers were paid less than the daily minimum wage. Labor inspectors under the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare then demanded that employers in those factories pay back wages to workers as required by the law.
The DLPW enforces laws related to labor relations and occupational safety and health. The law subjects employers to fines and imprisonment for minimum-wage noncompliance, but the government did not effectively enforce the law and penalties were insufficient to deter violations. There were many reports during the year of minimum-wage noncompliance which went to mediation, where workers settle for owed wages lower than the daily minimum wage. The DLPW issued orders to provincial offices in 2018 prohibiting labor inspectors from settling cases where workers received wages and benefits less than that required under the law.
Convictions for violations of occupational safety and health (OSH) regulations include imprisonment and fines; however, the number of OSH experts and inspections was insufficient, with most inspections only taking place in response to complaints. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the workforce as well. Union leaders estimated only 20 percent of workplaces, mostly large factories owned by international companies, complied with government OSH standards. Workplace safety instructions as well as training on workplace safety were mostly in Thai, likely contributing to higher incidence of accidents among migrant workers.
Medium-sized and large factories often applied government health and safety standards, but overall enforcement of safety standards was lax, particularly in the informal economy and among smaller businesses. NGOs and union leaders noted that ineffective enforcement was due to insufficient qualified inspectors, an overreliance on document-based inspection (instead of workplace inspection), a lack of protection against retaliation for workers complaints, a lack of interpreters, and a failure to impose effective penalties on noncompliant employers. The Ministry of Labor hired and trained more inspectors and foreign-language interpreters in 2018. The interpreters were assigned primarily to fishing-port inspection centers, multidisciplinary human-trafficking teams, and provincial labor offices with a high density of migrant workers.
The country provides universal health care for all citizens, and social security and workers’ compensation programs to insure employed persons in cases of injury or illness and to provide maternity, disability, death, child-allowance, unemployment, and retirement benefits. Registered migrant workers in both the formal and informal labor sectors and their dependents are also eligible to buy health insurance from the Ministry of Public Health.
NGOs reported that many construction workers, especially subcontracted workers and migrant workers, were not in the social-security system or covered under the workers’ compensation program, despite legal requirements. While the social-security program is mandatory for employed persons, it excludes workers in the informal sectors. Workers employed in the informal sector, those in temporary or seasonal employment, and the self-employed, may contribute voluntarily to the workers’ compensation program and receive government matching funds.
In March the Ministry of Labor issued regulations providing workers compensation to all workers except vendors and domestic workers. Labor-union leaders reported, however, that compensation for work-related illnesses was rarely granted because the connection between the health condition and the workplace was often difficult to prove.
In November a new labor-protection law for workers in the fishing industry came into effect. It required workers to have access to health-care and social-security benefits, and for vessels with deck size over 300 tonnage gross or which go out more than three days at a time to provide adequate living conditions for workers. Social-security benefits and other parts of the law, however, were not enforced pending approval of subordinate laws by the Council of State. The existing government requirements are for registered migrant fishery workers to buy health insurance and for vessel owners to contribute to the workers’ compensation fund. In August, NGOs reported the first case where a fishery migrant worker holding a border-pass became eligible for accident compensation. The lack of sufficient occupational safety and health training in the migrant workers’ language, of inspections by OSH experts, of first aid, and of reliable systems to ensure timely delivery of injured workers to hospitals after serious accidents, increased the vulnerability of fishery workers. During the year, NGOs reported several cases where the navy rescued fishery workers who had been in accidents at sea.
NGOs reported poor working conditions and lack of labor protections for migrant workers, including those near border-crossing points. In July 2018 the Royal Ordinance Concerning the Management of Foreign Workers’ Employment went into effect. The decree provides for civil penalties for employing or sheltering unregistered migrant workers, while strengthening worker protections by prohibiting Thai employment brokers and employers from charging migrant workers additional fees for recruitment. The decree also bans subcontracting and prohibits employers from holding migrant workers’ documents. It outlaws those convicted of violating labor and anti-trafficking-in-persons laws from operating employment agencies. In October the Chiang Mai provincial court sentenced an employer who retained the personal documents of migrant employees to one month in prison and a fine of THB 10,000 ($333), but the penalties were later reduced to 15 days’ imprisonment and a fine of THB 5,000 ($167).
Labor-brokerage firms used a “contract labor system” under which workers sign an annual contract. By law businesses must provide contract laborers “fair benefits and welfare without discrimination;” however, employers often paid contract laborers less and provided fewer or no benefits.
Department of Employment regulations limit the maximum charges for recruitment fees, but effective enforcement of the rules was hindered by workers’ unwillingness to provide information and the lack of documentary evidence regarding underground recruitment, documentation fees, and migration costs. Exploitative employment-service agencies persisted in charging citizens working overseas illegal recruitment fees as high as THB 500,000 ($16,700), that frequently equaled two years of earnings. NGOs reported that workers would often borrow this money at exorbitant interest rates from informal moneylenders.
In 2018, the latest year for which data were available, there were 86,297 reported incidents of accidents or work-related diseases. Of these, 2 percent resulted in organ loss, disability, or death. The Social Security Office reported most serious workplace accidents occurred in manufacturing, wholesale retail trade, construction, transportation, hotels, and restaurants. Observers said workplace accidents in the informal and agricultural sectors and among migrant workers were underreported. Employers rarely diagnosed or compensated occupational diseases, and few doctors or clinics specialized in them.