Tuesday, 13 November 2007
Suvarnabhumi Or Bust!
When I lived in Singapore in the mid-eighties there was a massive building boom which caused a big labour shortage as the economy went high-tech, buoyed up by growing prosperity.
What appalled me was the site conditions the immigrant construction workers had to endure, men and women from poorer countries who were building Singapore’s glittering towers. Many were from Thailand, employed, exploited perhaps, on short term contracts, before being sent back home with what remained of their modest savings.
It now looks to me twenty years later as if working conditions in Bangkok are still every bit as bad. City construction workers are housed in shacks built of bamboo and corrugated iron thrown up amidst the dust and filth of the building site. These iron huts must be like ovens and all but intolerable, but then the men have little or no choice or control over their lives.
Once again they’re building like crazy in Bangkok too and one of the more unusual projects is the overhead railway which will connect to the spectacular new airport that opened to flights not so long ago.
It’s called Suvarnabhumi airport, though the name’s pronounced Suvarnhapoom, just to confuse foreigners. And it’s been a bit embarrassing too because there’ve been all sorts of problems like the taxiways sinking under the weight of the aircraft, and allegations of corruption (what’s new!) and, more seriously, dirty windows and too few toilets in the passenger lounges. But soon it’ll have a world class rail link into town.
Much of the structure of the new overhead railway is now in place and it looks most impressive. I watched the work from above as a lorry mounted crane offloaded some of the massive prefabricated concrete track bed sections. At dead of night these had been miraculously threaded through the streets of Bangkok by low loader and were now placed onto the ground in the flooded site. It was scary watching them swinging through the air dramatically lit by spotlights, the men walking underneath, wading through the mud and guiding them into place. Under such conditions, the potential for accidents must be high, but then the workers come cheap and can be replaced.
As always, their working conditions look poor. In their time off they cook and eat on site, finding a quiet corner to sleep or rest and chat with their friends. It’s disturbing to see them, ant-like, leading a precarious life amidst the brutal concrete megaliths, harsh symbols of an unforgiving world.
I also think of the first airline passengers on the new rail link who will soon cruise coolly into the city high above the workers in the streets below, oblivious to the hard lives of those who have built it. Within a country such as this, first and third worlds can co-exist alongside and in total ignorance of each other.
Most of the construction workers, particularly the worst paid ones, are migrants from Isaan, the poor North East of Thailand. They stream into Bangkok in their hundreds of thousands in search of a tenuous life as there’s no longer a livelihood for them in the countryside. Here they provide a vast pool of cheap labour that is essential to maintain vested interests and keep the comfortable middle classes supplied.
Cheap labour is just as much a natural resource as a nation’s oil deposits, but unlike oil the cost of labour in Thailand is not going up. On the contrary, increasing fuel prices are making the lives of the have-nots ever more difficult day by day.
Living costs here are not so low any more and I wonder how a family with small children can survive when a monthly wage is as little as five thousand baht. Life is tough for so many ordinary Thais, a real struggle for all except the fortunate few.