Thailand’s Border Special Economic Zones and Precarious Life and Work

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I have returned from the NUS workshop on Living in an Age of Precarity, which was very successful.

This is the abstract of my presentation.

Thailand’s Border Special Economic Zones and Precarious Life and Work

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

ABSTRACT

Thailand’s proposed new special economic zone (SEZ) policy calls for more than ten projects in border areas across the country. After the military coup in 2014, it was stated that the SEZs would be used as internment camps for migrant workers as part of the campaign against the poor initiated by the junta. That policy has now changed to using day migrants in value-adding activities that will help lift Thailand out of the Middle Income Trap. These top-down approaches instil little confidence that genuine market demand or complementarity of production assets will lead to thriving SEZs with skilled and well-rewarded employees. Indeed, the presence of SEZs located across the Lao and Cambodian borders suggests there will be over-capacity of industrial space and, hence, under-utilisation of sites and the driving down of costs, including wages. Existing SEZs are already lying unused or, as in the case of Boten, stand as tribute to the damaging effects of cowboy capitalism. These examples suggest a flaw in the claim for SEZs in Thailand that they are different from industrial estates and not paces of pollution, contestation and social problems. This paper investigates the logic of the border SEZs in Thailand in the light of projects across the Mekong Region and, specifically, considers the extent to which they promote safe, decent and stable employment, in contrast to the precarious work and lifestyle of the factory hand and family members.

Keywords: employment, Mekong Region, precarity, special economic zones, Thailand

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