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Economy, Labor

rice harvest, seasonal migration, real wages, underemployment, economic boom

The Thai labor force totaled 36.8 million workers in 2000. Although agriculture’s share in national income is now very small, official statistics indicate that 49 percent of the labor force is still employed in that sector, with 18 percent in industry and 33 percent in services. These statistics are likely to overstate agriculture’s true share of the labor force, as many rural Thai engage in seasonal migration, working in cities for part of the year and returning to the countryside during peak demand periods in agriculture, such as the rice harvest. Within industry, most employment is with small firms (those with less than 50 employees). Less than 10 percent of the labor force is unionized, although that figure rises to more than 20 percent in larger firms of 50 or more employees.

The economic boom of 1985 to 1996 caused massive growth in total employment, especially of unskilled and semiskilled workers. From 1990 to 1996, real wages (adjusted for inflation) rose by about 10 percent per year. The employment boom drew many Thai from rural areas to urban centers and resulted in a large influx of illegal immigrants from poorer neighboring countries, such as Laos and Myanmar.

Following the 1997 collapse of Thailand’s economy, unemployment and underemployment became serious problems, with the former peaking at nearly 3 million jobless in mid-1998. Some of the unemployed returned to rural areas, but many more remained in the cities in the hope that jobs would become available again once the economy recovered.

A longer-term issue for the Thai economy is the prevailing low educational attainment of Thai workers, as compared to their counterparts in other middle-income developing economies. Although the literacy rate is high, official figures show that only 56 percent of children of high school age are enrolled in high school.

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