182 days of maternal leave with a fully paid salary, 28 days of partner leave with a fully paid compensation, and a breastfeeding corner in the workplace to allow mothers to pump breast milk and store them in the proper refrigerator to bring them back home to the babies in good quality!

It is almost impossible to imagine such maternity rights and protection in Thailand today. According to the law, pregnant workers can only take 90 days maternity leave, of which only half – 45 days – is covered by a paid salary from the government social welfare system.

Lacking income for the other 45 days, most mothers usually return to work earlier send their newborn babies back to their relatives in the countryside where they are unable to breastfeed. Adding to these pressures is the fact that there is no leave at all for partners to help care for infants and mothers.

Although it is hard to believe, extraordinary wins in maternity protection and welfare have already happened in Thailand. This is due to the efforts of the women’s network of TEAM, affiliated to the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee (TLSC).

The women’s network of TEAM has successfully pushed companies in seven provinces to change their maternity leave policies from 90 days to 120 or 180 days, and even 182 days. In addition to this they now provide 28 days leave for partners with 70% of pay or in some cases full pay.

The women’s network of TEAM under TLSC has won increased maternity protection for their union members, including paid maternity leave and breastfeeding corners in worksites. A key actor behind this success is Apantree Charoensak, the former president of the women’s network of TEAM and a member of the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Women’s Committee, who campaigned for better maternity protection for six years, from 2013-2019.

Apantree and the women’s network TEAM mobilized union members and campaigned to achieve better maternity protection in five ways:

  1. increasing the number of women on the committees or boards of unions
  2. organizing women’s teams and providing them training and awareness of women workers’ rights
  3. researching workers’ rights and maternity protection in other countries to write well-informed letters to employers
  4. using mass media, theater, and public rallies to spread awareness of maternity rights to the public and the government
  5. ensuring the relevant government departments take responsibility and play their part

Who is Apantree? 

Apantree Charoensak, or “sister Mor”, was a founding member of the Cuisine and Service Workers’ Union in Thailand and former president of the union.  The Cuisine and Service Workers’ Union is affiliated to the IUF. After the Cuisine and Service Workers’ Union joined TEAM in TLSC, Apantree was the president of the women’s network of TEAM from 2013 to 2019.

Currently, she is the Vice President of TLSC and a candidate of the Social Democratic Party in the coming election in May 2023.

Looking back to 2013, Apantree says she could not jump into campaigning for better maternity protection at a time when women were not even on the committees or boards of unions. It was impossible to discuss and plan maternity protection when there were no women to consult with:

It was surprising to know that there were no women at all in the 15 committees on the TEAM board. However, the union members consist of 70% women and only 30% men. Each year in their demands to employers, there had been everything but women workers’ issues.

Apantree raised this problem to the President of TLSC at that time, Yongyut Mentrapao. He agreed with her and gave her support in pushing this issue.

So the first thing Apantree did was to increase the participation of women in the committees of each union.

With her robust agenda, Apantree met with each union in seven provinces affiliated with TEAM, raised their awareness of the importance of having women’s voices in the union, and asked them to send women members to join her team. Among thousands of union members, she eventually got 12 women to form her women’s network TEAM.

We started with these twelve women. To be on the same page, we discussed the lack of women’s voices in the union and visited each area. For example, in Rayong, there are fifteen unions; Borwin, Lamchabang, Ummata, Wellgold, and in Chachengsao province, Sumutprakarn, Prajeenburi. We went to these all to talk to the president and pressured and convinced them to have women on the committee board.

The main reason for having more women represented in the committee board is to attach women’s demands in the union’s letter to the employer each year.

However, the women’s network TEAM encountered a significant obstacle in the form of gender bias and gender-based discrimination. Apantree recalls:

Women were afraid to join the leading team in the union because their families don’t allow them, their partner fear that they will have an affair, and many things. Most women rush home after work to care for children, do the housework, and cook for their husbands, so they have already run out of time and energy. While the committees were against this idea without any reason, I kept insisting and stated that you got to find one; it’s impossible that you can’t find any women to volunteer to work for a union out of a thousand members. And they were right. Some unions, there weren’t any women willing to join us.

However, Apantree and the women’s network TEAM did not give up easily. They continued to disseminate their ideas to the unions and kept writing to them. Later, they had more women and LGBTQ+ folks, and youth (under 35 years) join their team. It increased from 12 to 30 people. This gave them more confidence to ask for a budget from TLSC for the training programs.

Afterward, Apantree invited academics and NGOs experienced in women workers’ rights to exchange knowledge with the group, from feminism to women’s health and wellbeing, to collective bargaining skills and how to write an effective letter to employers. This women’s network TEAM became invincible after receiving this training and implementing it in real life by sharing and helping other members with this knowledge in the workplaces they visited .

Acknowledging these women organizers’ power, TLSC changed the rule to have 30% of women and one LGBTQ+ or youth on the union committee board.

Once this women’s network TEAM was strengthened, it acted like a giant magnet. Suddenly there was a surge of cases of exploitation and unfair treatment of women workers that gravitated toward them. Apantree jokingly told us that these members viewed her group as the “Paweena group” – a famous group run by a former politician, Paweena, that helps women facing violence, especially domestic violence.

The women’s network TEAM finally took on the issue of maternity protection after receiving a letter from a pregnant worker who was unfairly terminated by her employer.

The women’s team went to the factory and found that it hired workers from several outsourcing agencies. The company usually sent pregnant workers back to the outsourcing agency before they were terminated. No one had ever stood up to this policy, viewing it as complicated and involving many other outsourced companies. It was impossible to fight back.

However, with a sound support system that included the backing of the TLSC president, other male colleagues who gained more understanding of women workers’ rights, and the increased number of women on the union committee board, the women’s team could finally do the impossible.

Apantree researched how these issues are tackled in other countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, how many days of maternity and paternity leave the workers have, and what compensation they receive. With this information, she saw the possibility of fighting. She used this information in her letters to employers, under a section she called “principle and rationale”. This gave validity to their demands. Then she disseminated the letter to every union in seven provinces to give to their companies. They was a key part of the push that led companies to amend their maternity protection policies and benefits.

The women’s network TEAM utilized mass media by organizing theater and rallies on special days. They used International Women’s Day, May Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and Decent Work Day to bring maternity rights and protection to the attention of the public and the government.

Moreover, while visiting factories, Apantree and the team found that many women had to pump their breast milk in unclean and unhygienic washrooms, in a rush during toilet breaks, which could cause infection and affect the health of both mothers and babies.

Apantree and the team drew pubic attention to these appalling conditions through theater, performing in Thammasat University hall with the help of their scholars’ network. This performance attracted the attention from the audience as well as the mainstream media.

Once the companies started changing their maternal leave and breastfeeding corner policy, Apantree and the women’s network incorporated government actors into their strategy to ensure they committed to their policy. They contacted the health ministry to advise these companies on setting up hygienic and safe breastfeeding corners.

I had these governors from the ministry of health advise the companies on setting breastfeeding corners as it requires specific knowledge. For example, in a corner, there must be a breast pump, kettle for heating up water to wipe on the breast, refrigerator, zip lock bags to store milk, pens to write the date of the milk, and dry ice to keep the milk fresh when the workers bring it back home.

Later, these women from TEAM unions used their budget to film the triumphant story of a company that increased maternal leave to 182 days with full pay and a well-equipped breastfeeding corner in the workplace.

They sent the video to the ministry of social development, human security, and the ministry of labor.

This video inspired these government departments to create an award for excellent employers who can grant longer paid maternity leave than the government rules (90 days) and promote maternity protection in their companies. This award attracts the attention of various companies and has become a competition.

The employers in many companies where we have unions know each other. Often, they brag about how their companies care about improving the workers’ welfare and the prize they get from the ministry of labor or the ministry of social development and human security. This leads them to compete with each other. For example, a big company like Summit company in Rayong or Toyota hasn’t considered creating a breastfeeding corner. When a smaller company nearby has one, the Summit or Toyota feels it is losing face and needs to be like them. With this atmosphere, eighteen companies where we have union members received the award from the ministry in 2020 as they have maternity leave days for 120 to 180 days.

To achieve maternity protection in the workplace, the women’s network of TEAM used different strategies that required help and the involvement of various actors.

This ranged from the male unionists who gained more awareness and supported Apantree to bring more women into the union committees and board. This was later institutionalized in the new TEAM rule that the union committees must have at least 30% women’s representation.

Apantree established a robust women’s team by having them trained intensively by scholars, NGOs, and other trade unionists and having them listen to the workers’ problems and visit them in the workplace. Once the team understood the problem, they researched other countries’ maternity protection policies and programs to use as evidence in complaint letters to the employers.

The women’s team used the media and theater to raise public awareness of maternity protection among the public and government departments. And lastly, they involved these government departments in creating a competitive atmosphere among the companies to improve maternity protection. Apantree and the women’s network TEAM have shown that to succeed in winning better maternity protection, they turned disagreement into agreement. And yes, they incorporated more women’s voice in decision-making!

Suparada Fuangfu (Pakkaad), IUF A/P Communications Officer, Thailand