Trouble in paradise – Thailand’s hotel workers tell their stories

The article was originally published by Schyst resande (Fair Travel Network) together with Fair Action. Their ongoing campaign in Sweden looks into how hotel workers are treated in Thailand.

Safe, friendly and affordable. Thailand is a favourite holiday destination. But the tourism industry isn’t all sunshine. For the Burmese migrant workers who clean the rooms, attend to guests and work in the hotel kitchens, the days are long and the wages are low. In a new campaign, Fair Travel and Fair Action in Sweden let staff in hotels used by the leading tour operators speak out about their everyday lives.

Two of the three companies mentioned in the study are British: TUI (owned by TUI Group) and Ving (owned by Thomas Cook Group).

Although Phyo Thida Kyaw cleans the hotel seven days a week, she can’t afford to live in a place with a toilet. She shares three outhouses with about fifty other migrant workers. Photo: Jonas Gratzer Photo: Jonas Gratzer

The hotel where Phyo Thida Kyaw* works as a cleaner boast with two lovely pools. While she cleans the toilets, guests can cool off with a drink at the bar or indulge in a massage at the hotel spa. The resort is located in Khao Lak. Thailand, 600 feet from the sea, and is hired by Ving, a Swedish tour operator owned by Thomas Cook Group. The hotel is marketed as both family-friendly and affordable. One night in a double room costs about as much as Phyo Thida Kyaw earns in a week.

“I earn 7 pounds a day,” she says.

And that is while working seven days a week. According to Thai labour legislation, employees must have at least one day’s paid leave, but Burmese migrants are the weakest group in the labour market and are forced to accept the terms offered.

After the end of the day, Phyo Thida Kyaw walks home. The family-friendly hotel’s staff live in tin sheds built on swamp-like land. About fifty people share three outhouses. The air is filled with the stench from the sewers. Mosquitoes and other insects thrive in the muddy corridors between the sheds. This is the behind-the-curtains view of the holiday paradise, the part of Khao Lak which is not intended for tourists to see.

Phyo Thida Kyaw lives in a tin shed on swamp-like soils. Photo: Jonas Gratzer

 Phyo Thida Kyaw thinks for a long time when asked what would improve her situation.

Finally, she says: “If I was paid 2 pounds more per day and had maybe one day’s paid leave every month, everything would be fine.”

Phyo Thida Kyaw is not alone

Fair Travel and Fair Action have interviewed nine Burmese migrants who work in six different hotels, contracted by the main tour operators in Sweden: Apollo, TUI or Ving. All of the hotels are in the Phuket area and in Khao Lak.

All but one of these workers would have to make at least 50% more in order to be able to support a family, buy proper food and afford decent housing. Four of them even have wages below the minimum salary, which is the lowest wage an employer may pay according to Thai law.

Several of the people interviewed also say that they work seven days a week, even though the employer is obliged to give them one day’s paid leave a week.

In Fair Travel’s and Fair Action’s social media campaign, the workers talk about their tough reality and dreams of a better life.

The problems have been known for a long time

The workers’ stories confirm the poor terms that Fair Travel and Fair Action revealed in previous surveys in 2012 and 2015. However, although Apollo, TUI and Ving have long been aware of the low wages and long working days, this review shows that they have not done enough to improve the workers’ situation.

Companies need to make sure that hotel employees get salaries that cover their basic needs, such as proper food, decent living, and the ability to provide for their families. In addition, companies should make it possible for employees to form and join unions, so that employees can demand higher wages and reasonable working hours.

More from Fair Travel and Fair Action on working conditions in Thai hotels: No holidays for the Burmese (report, 2015) (link: http://www.schystresande.se/upl/files/140068)

*Names of interviewed workers, as well as details that may identify which hotels they work in, have been changed with regard to the safety of the workers. The interviews in Thailand were made by freelance journalist Ivar Andersen.

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