Does the Tourism Industry Create Decent Work?

I will be off to Phuket this week to present a paper at the Prince of Songhkhla Conference (and two students have papers there also). This is the extended abstract:


Does the Tourism Industry Create Decent Work?


It is generally accepted that development of the tourism industry helps in providing more jobs for local people and, hence, better income generation and prospects for economic development. Yet it has been shown that most new jobs in the tourism industry are low-skilled and low-salary in nature. Indeed, the negative externalities often associated with investment in the tourism industry, particularly in the Mekong Region but also elsewhere, result in jobs associated with demeaning and dangerous activities (e.g. sex work industry and drugs peddling). Unless it is clear what kinds of jobs will be created by development in tourism, it will be impossible for government agencies to plan for future changes to the labour market and to the need for public services in the future. This paper examines the evidence for job creation in different parts of the world and estimates how this will apply to tourism development in Thailand. The limitations of this approach are explored and suggestions made as to future research necessary to improve the quality of labour market planning in this regard.

Tourism in Thailand

Tourism is one of the most important industries in Thailand and one which has become very important in defining, at least to themselves, the nature of the Thai people and state. Generally, tourism numbers and expenditure have increased year-on-year since long-distance air travel became feasible for the middle-classes, despite recent problems depressing demand including economic crisis, the tsunami, epidemics and political turbulence. In excess of twelve million arrivals are expected in 2010, the majority of whom will be from East Asian countries, with important contributions also from Europe and North America.

While it is clear that the tourism industry creates plenty of additional income for the local economy, it is less obvious how those benefits are distributed and whether many of the jobs depending on tourism are anything other than low-skilled, low-paid service sector jobs. Thai economic development has depended to a considerable extent on a labour market organised along the lines of the 3Ls: low-skills, low-salaries and long hours. For jobs such as these, few benefits flow to the workers and, given that a great deal of jobs in the sector are seasonal and promote labour migration, they might be the source of social ills to cancel out any of the benefits. It is important to find ways to improve the quality of jobs so that skills, technology and developmental possibility can be transferred to local individuals and firms.

Decent Work

Decent work is work that permits workers to retain their dignity and human rights, as well as being able to earn an income sufficient to sustain them. According to the ILO, a definition of ‘decent work’ includes the following elements: “Decent work is captured in four strategic objectives: fundamental principles and rights at work and international labour standards; employment and income opportunities; social protection and social security; and social dialogue and tripartism. These objectives hold for all workers, women and men, in both formal and informal economies; in wage employment or working on their own account; in the fields, factories and offices; in their home or in the community (ILO, n.d.).” It appears, on first inspection, that large numbers of jobs in Thailand, in both the formal and informal sectors, do not match up to the requirements of decent work, not just because of the low level of the minimum wages in the Kingdom but also the lack of legal freedom of association and freedom of expression, not to mention the paucity of social security provisions. It will be necessary, therefore, to adopt a flexible approach to the definition of decent work when it comes to assessing the results for this paper. As a consequence, most forms of work which are not actively part of the 3D constellation (dirty, dangerous or demeaning) will be accepted as being sufficiently decent.


A case study method will be used to obtain data for this paper, since accurate, large-scale quantitative data is not available. Assessments of the nature and number of jobs created by a tourism industry (or, at least, operating in conjunction with the tourism sector) exist for other countries and these may be adapted to the Thai economy. Previous research into the nature and number of entrepreneurs in the Mekong region will be used to inform further the assessment of the number and type of jobs associated with the tourism industry. This will be applied with respect to specific spatial locations within Thailand where access to appropriate levels of data is possible.


Findings in research such as this run the risk of being dependent on definitions and the way in which captured data are subsequently categorised. To deal with this problem, the research method employed here aims to provide multiple approaches to the data with a view to triangulating the results with those obtained elsewhere. In this way, more confidence may be engendered in the findings and the implications and conclusions drawn from them.


ILO (n.d.), “Decent Work for All,” available at:–en/index.htm.


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