Thai / English

Attitudes could affect the benefits of the AEC

Achara Deboonme
17 Sep 13
The Nation

Recently, I came across a very interesting short story in which the author confirmed the regional perception that Thailand's awareness of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is relatively higher than many of the other nine member countries of Asean.

Published in a Thai magazine, "Sakulthai", the short story starts with the life of a young man. Although born in the South, famous for the hottest and spiciest food in Thailand, the man feels that bland dishes are better for his stomach. He remembers his uncle's wife, who was kind enough to make him dishes to his moderate taste. Yet, the aunt - born in the North - was disliked by others in his family. Fed with rumours, his uncle chased her away one day, believing that northern women were less trustworthy than southern women.

Moving to Bangkok, the man became a regular customer at a food stall whose female owner was from the Northeast. She recalled a miserable life while living in the South, as her ex-husband's family couldn't stand the smell of pla ra, the northeastern-style fermented fish. Whenever she wanted pla ra, she had to sneak away from the house. Her miserable life ended when she could no longer tolerate her ex-husband's adultery.

As the young man ate lunch at the stall one day, a Myanmar worker broke a plate. The stall-owner's son berated her, "Your country crushed Ayutthaya and now you break my mum's plate?"

I have to admit that the author was clever at revealing people's negative attitudes into one story. It shows what Thai people in the four regions of the country think of each other. It also shows some Thais' attitude towards migrant workers from neighbouring countries.

Given that the job market in ASEAN will be wider open for certain occupations after the AEC comes into effect, will these attitudes erode the full benefits that regional integration can bring?

Certainly, yes. In expanding overseas, Thai companies need to send some Thai managers to those countries. If these managers carry with them negative attitudes, successful operations are not guaranteed.

Top executives of Thai companies operating in Laos admit that cross-cultural communication is a very sensitive issue. Some Thais still feel superior to Lao folk. The small landlocked country has a per-capita income four times less than Thailand's (US$1,266 in 2011 against Thailand's $5,474 in 2012). Lao people get agitated at this attitude. Tour guides often tell Thai visitors that they hate the phrase "Thailand and Laos are brothers", as Thailand considers itself the elder brother. They prefer the word "friends", as this indicates equal status.

The part of the story about the Myanmar worker is also interesting. It is estimated that half of about 4 million Myanmar overseas workers are in Thailand. A labourer who can work in Thailand for 10 years might collect enough money to buy enough land at home for a rubber plantation. Others get married here and have no plan to return home.

The AEC means that investors in all 10 ASEAN countries will enjoy the same privileges. That means a foreign company can operate anywhere and enjoy zero tariffs on their products shipped to any other member country. In time, Myanmar will join the AEC and many workers might be lured back home, particularly if they have experience of living and working in Thailand.

At the World Economic Forum earlier this year, Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi expressed her wish that these overseas workers return home to rebuild the country, but only if the workers wish to.

Foreign companies are eager to invest in the country, and job agencies now advise them to bring overseas workers, as they possess skills that local workers can't offer. This is seen at job fairs in countries with many Burmese migrant workers, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

"More than 300 people applied for work at a recent job fair in Singapore. Right now, our company receives about 15 application forms daily. Some companies have about 800 applications on file at one time," said Pyae Sone Min, online marketing executive for Career Development Consultants.

At the moment, there are vacancies in communications, logistics, information technology, food products and services, and human resources. These sectors need skilled workers, but Myanmar's employment market is filled with unskilled labourers.

One Thai company executive said he was afraid that Myanmar workers would return home to new prospects. But he hopes that equal benefits with Thai workers will encourage them to stay onhere. He realises that the effects would be significant if hundreds of these workers became disgruntled and left Thailand en masse.