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EXCLUSIVE-Thai airport staff sue over pay dispute as virus hammers travel sector

BANGKOK, Sept 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of Thai airport workers are suing a security company hired by state-owned Airports of Thailand (AOT), saying they were tricked into accepting worse terms with the threat of losing their jobs, the Thomson Reuters Foundation can reveal.

Ten security staff at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport said in a lawsuit they were pressured to resign from ASM Management and sign new contracts as part of a restructuring in May by AOT, which manages six airports and has been hit hard by coronavirus.

Labour rights’ campaigners have voiced concerns about companies capitalising on the pandemic as an opportunity to cut costs by coercing workers to accept worse terms and conditions.

Thailand is fast returning to normalcy having recorded about 58 COVID-19 deaths and 3,440 cases since January, but the tourism-reliant economy has been battered by the collapse of global travel and a ban on foreign travellers imposed in April.

The workers in the lawsuit said their new contracts with AOT Aviation Security (AOT AVSEC) - a joint venture between AOT , ASM, and two other security companies - left them on lower pay and without benefits such as a transport allowance.

The case was filed in July but had not been made public.

The workers are suing ASM for termination without severance pay and not providing payment to cover their notice period. Five lawyers said coercing workers to resign amounted to wrongful dismissal under labour laws, and entitled them to compensation.

ASM and AOT declined to be interviewed for this article.

AOT AVSEC’s human resources manager Pasakorn Aksornsuwan said staff had been “transferred” from ASM, with years of prior service reflected in their salaries. He said the new venture was not involved in making any of them sign resignation letters.

One security guard on the lawsuit, Komkrich Dearkhuntod, said he and 100-odd other staff at ASM were given about 10 minutes to resign then sign a new contract one night in April.

“Our supervisor told us everything (at AOT AVSEC) would be better than at ASM,” he said. “They saw us as security guards and looked down on us since we had little education, they thought they could trick us into signing those papers.”

Several workers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they had heard of hundreds of their colleagues being affected, but said most would not speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

AOT AVSEC said 3,000 of its 5,200 person workforce had come from ASM, which previously supplied about 3,500 workers to AOT.

It is unclear if all 3,000 ex-ASM staff signed resignation letters before joining AOT AVSEC, and it is unknown how many of the remaning workers were made redundant or left voluntarily.

LOWER PAY

Pasakorn of AOT AVSEC said some of its workers who had previously been at ASM were now earning less because of pandemic-related cuts to working hours, a lack of overtime payments, and fewer benefits compared with their former jobs.

The Ministry of Finance holds a 70% stake in AOT, and its State Enterprise Policy Office said the ministry was not permitted to interfere in the management of state enterprises.

The ministry’s permanent secretary Prasong Poontaneat, who is also chairman of AOT’s board of directors, said he was not aware of any workers being mistreated. Prasong said he oversaw the company’s policies rather than its business operations.

Top airlines globally have announced layoffs, wage cuts and unpaid leave for staff as cash-strapped firms wait for bailouts amid the pandemic which has hugely disrupted air travel.

AOT last month posted its worst-ever quarter while seven Thai airlines asked for a combined 24 billion baht ($770 million) in low interest loans and other support from the government, which is considering the request.

However labour rights campaigners fear subcontractors such as ASM are using the pandemic as an opportunity to cut costs by forcing workers to accept worse terms and conditions.

“If we can’t expect adherence to the state’s legal framework and rules by a state-owned enterprise, how can we expect private companies to behave appropriately?” said Erin van der Maas from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

“LABOUR RIGHTS VIOLATIONS”

About 300 AOT AVSEC staff have recently joined the Wingspan Workers’ Union and Airport Workers of Thailand - a union which has nearly 1,800 members and plans to engage in collective bargaining to improve working conditions and terms at AOT AVSEC.

Union President Ampai Wivatthanasathapat urged AOT to take responsibility and ensure workers were treated lawfully.

“There is a growing trend of labour rights violations among outsourced companies (at the airport), with firms pressuring workers to resign in order to avoid severance pay,” she said.

Pornnarai Thuiyakhai, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said he hoped ASM would repay the workers and that the legal action could put pressure on AOT AVSEC to improve the terms of employment for its staff and reinstate their accrued benefits.

The Labour Court in central Ayutthaya province will hold the first mediation session in January next year, Pornnarai said.

One of the workers named in the lawsuit, Ploy, said she signed a contract with AOT AVSEC worth 14,000 baht a month - 700 less than she earned at ASM - with all of her benefits scrapped.

Yet Ploy said she only earned 11,000 baht last month as AOT AVSEC lowered her working hours citing the coronavirus pandemic.

“The only way I can survive ... is by taking another job selling food, which gives me enough money to feed myself,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

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