Thai airport workers seek compensation for lost lunch breaks

Almost 200 Thai airport security workers who say they were denied breaks to eat or use the bathroom are filing a complaint against their employer, highlighting a jump in labor rights violations during the pandemic, union leaders said.

The workers are demanding compensation of about $60,000 from AOT Aviation Security (AOT AVSEC), a joint venture including the country's state-run airports operator – which has been involved in several other disputes with workers over the last year.

Ampai Wivatthanasathapat, president of the airport workers' union that plans to file the complaint at the Labor Ministry next week, said the case reflected a slide in working conditions in Thailand since the COVID-19 crisis struck in early 2020.

"There has been a massive increase in labor rights violations across the country, with many employers using COVID-19 as an excuse to lay off workers without severance pay," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Labor rights activists globally have voiced concerns about companies capitalizing on the pandemic as an opportunity to cut costs by coercing workers to accept worse terms and conditions.

Four security workers involved in the new case said they had not been allowed to leave their posts to eat or sometimes even to use the bathroom since they started working for the company in May 2020.

They said the situation got worse last year when the company stopped hiring additional staff – with those left behind regularly reprimanded for stepping away to eat packed lunches, buy a snack, or use the toilet.

Some female staff had to use men's toilets because the women's restrooms were further away, the workers added.

"One day, the food that I bought since morning was spoiled, so I asked for permission to go and buy lunch," said one 45-year-old female security guard at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, asking to remain anonymous.

"When [another supervisor] saw that I wasn't at my post, he said I could have been fired for doing that," she said.

AOT AVSEC's human resources manager Pasakorn Aksornsuwan said security guards have now been given lunch breaks, bringing them in line with other airport workers, following discussions with the Labor Ministry last month.

"Only [workers] in some spots might not have had a full hour lunch break. It's not something that most faced," he said.

Basic rights

The new complaint is the latest dispute involving Thai airport staff and comes amid a crackdown on labor unions in recent years, with leaders facing threats and pressure such as being fired for engaging in collective bargaining or strikes.

The president of the state railway union and 12 other union leaders were sentenced to three years in prison a year ago for their role in organizing a railway safety campaign.

Last month, more than 900 airport workers sued ASM Security Management, a company hired by state-run Airports of Thailand (AOT), saying they were tricked into accepting worse terms with the threat of losing their jobs.

Court-led mediation is due to start in October.

In a separate case last year, 10 Suvarnabhumi airport workers filed suit against ASM on similar grounds, with the first court hearing to decide the dispute due in November.

Karn Thongyai, the head of ASM, said the workers had been "transferred" from ASM with years of prior service reflected in their pay, with higher salaries.

Even vital workers have lost basic rights as a result of the pandemic and the simultaneous crackdown on trade unions, according to the Solidarity Center, a US-based labor rights advocacy group.

"It's hard to imagine a more essential worker than airport security officers in a country that relies predominantly on tourism, and yet what the current exercise of rights has exposed is the systematic undermining of basic rights," said the group's country director, David Welsh.

"This includes most egregiously things like toilet and lunch breaks." – Rappler.com