June 1, 2017 10:00 am JST

Thai women find work -- and hazards -- on two wheels

While some find motorcycle taxi driving liberating, there is a price to pay

LAURE SIEGEL and TOM VATER, Contributing writers

Bangkok motorcycle traffic in the On Nut area (Photo by Tom Vater)

BANGKOK Thailand's capital is well-known for its gridlocked roads. During Bangkok's intense rush hour, only the city's army of motorcycle taxi drivers keep things moving. Women, deprived of other economic opportunities and attracted by the freedom the job offers, are pushing into this traditionally male bastion of the national workforce.

Nine hours a day, Kamokwan Sangngian, 40, takes commuters from On Nut Skytrain station, a few stops east of downtown, to their destinations. She weaves her 150cc motorbike through narrow alleys and traffic-clogged roads to get her customers home as quickly as possible. "I had a friend who was working at this queue, which happens to be near my house. So I asked her to get me an interview with the group leader."

Tired of the factory work she had been doing, Kamokwan moved to Bangkok from Nakhon Si Thammarat three years ago. Driving a motorcycle taxi is her escape from drudgery. She now works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., six days a week, which allows her to collect her child from school.

"I like the freedom the driving gives me. I can choose my work hours and spend my free time with my son. And I make good money. I can even afford taekwondo lessons for him," she told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Operating a motorcycle taxi has long been the job of men from the provinces, tens of thousands of whom arrived in Bangkok following factory closures and massive layoffs in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

FREE AGENTS Italian anthropologist Claudio Sopranzetti interviewed hundreds of drivers for his dissertation on motorcycle taxi drivers and politics (Harvard University, 2013). The drivers, known as p'win, told him about itsaraphap, an abstract notion of freedom and independence that makes their stressful and dangerous jobs worthwhile. Sopranzetti notes that the quest for itsaraphap is "a central framework through which to understand life in contemporary Thailand." The iconic orange vest worn by riders is desirable because of the freedom it promises. But prospective female drivers have to fight hard to enter a taxi queue.

"When I first started driving, some men in the queue were teasing me," said Kamokwan. Once I had proven to be a good driver, the harassment stopped. Some male colleagues also tried to push me out of the job because of the fear of competition."

Kyoko Kusakabe, a professor at the Asian Institute of Technology, north of Bangkok, studies globalization and women's work, women's employment in the informal economy, and labor migration and gendered mobility. She sees parallels in other male-dominated sectors in Thailand.

"At the beginning, the men make life difficult for their female counterparts because they are scared to lose their social status as hard workers if too many women enter their profession and perform just as well as they do," Kusakabe said.

There are about 200,000 motorcycle taxi drivers working in the city, operating from about 6,100 queues, according to Chaloem Changthongmadn, president of the Motorcycle Taxi Association of Thailand. There are no statistics on the gender of drivers, but Changthongmadn guesses that around 10% are women.

At the queue in On Nut, seven of the hundred or so drivers are women. Somlit Lalert, 46, is the leader of the entire group.

"I came with my husband from Trat 10 years ago. We started in this business together," she said. "I was the only woman at the time. Then I was elected to be boss of the queue. Now women come almost every day and ask me if they can work in our queue. Once they see other female drivers in the line, they feel confident to do the same."

In her administrative capacity, Somlit makes sure that everyone comes to work, attends meetings with police officers and authorities, informs her drivers about new laws and summons those who break the rules. She also manages an informal health insurance system for the drivers, who pay 100 baht ($3) a month into a fund. If they fall sick, they receive up to 2,000 baht to tide them over.

"It's a lot of work to run the queue, but I am proud to represent our group of drivers," she said.

SCARCE OPPORTUNITIES Increased visibility and female solidarity are undoubtedly drawing more women into the profession, but Kusakabe sees deeper structural reasons for the phenomenon.

"There are less and less unskilled job positions. Low-paid jobs in construction and markets are filled by Cambodian and Burmese migrants. Street vendors are being shut down as part of municipal cleanup campaigns. The vendors' existence is further threatened by franchises duplicating popular street foods," she said. "Factory work is really difficult when you have children to look after. The service industry employs many women, but the income is very low. Thais no longer want to do the jobs they did before, but they don't have the skills to find better work so they find themselves with few opportunities."

Kusakabe added: "In times of crisis, men are less existentially threatened than women. They can go to vocational schools and learn a skill ... [to become an] electrician or technician. Or they go back to the countryside, where the government provides construction work for them. But there is nothing for women. Driving a taxi or a motorbike taxi is an increasingly attractive alternative, even as the sector cannot absorb all the women looking for work."

In a quiet part of the northern Bangkok district of Lad Phrao, Luksika Yathong is cleaning the noodle stall that she has been running with her husband for the past 15 years. The 36-year-old is preparing to go out on her second job. Four years ago, the couple started driving motorcycle taxis part time to pay for their sons' education.

Luksika prefers to work outside the busy downtown areas such as Sukhumvit, Silom and Khao San Road. "There are more foreigners downtown, so there is a lot of money at stake. Here, we have fewer customers but we no longer have to pay the mafia to do our job."

For years, drivers accumulated huge debts paying off extortionists, including police officers, for the precious orange jacket, or would have to pay monthly bribes.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took the first step to bring the industry into the official economy in 2003, as part of his "war on dark influences." His government introduced a registration system to curtail the practices that were choking the profession. Vests were issued free of charge.

But after a coup removed Thaksin in 2006, control over the motorcycle taxis slipped back into the hands of organized crime. When Luksika and her husband started driving, they had to pay 4,000 baht a month each to work.

In May 2014, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a coup, citing corruption as one of the main reasons for the overthrow of Thailand's democratically elected government. The junta has announced plans to once again reform motorcycle taxi services in Bangkok. According to data from the taxi association, a third of the city's motorcycle drivers are not registered with the Department of Land and Transport.

Luksika has signed up for GoBike, a motorcycle hailing app that was recently approved by the transport department. The department is also calling on the military government to ban apps like Uber and Grab. It claims their vehicles are not properly registered or insured, and that their payment systems do not comply with Thai regulations.

"If fully developed, GoBike could be a good and safe addition to the work at the queue," said Luksika, "especially for women, so we don't have to stand in the queue all day. I will probably drive a motorcycle taxi as long as I work."

RISKS OF THE ROAD Back in On Nut, Kamokwan is not so enthusiastic. "We inhale so much pollution. The health hazards are always on my mind. I go to the hospital every month to have my lungs checked."

Drivers make between 20,000 and 25,000 baht a month, or 700-800 baht a day -- more than twice what they would take home from a factory job. But fast money has a price. According to the World Health Organization, Thailand, with 38 highway fatalities per 100,000 people, ranks second only to the Dominican Republic as the most dangerous place in the world to drive. Nearly three-fourths of Thailand's accident victims are drivers or passengers on small motorcycles.

All the women motorcycle drivers interviewed by the Nikkei Asian Review have had accidents. And while the bikes are insured, the drivers themselves are only covered by the informal fund of the queue. That is not enough if they are unable to work for an extended period.

Drivers struggle with the paradox of entrepreneurship: Freedom beckons, but it can be a precarious existence. Going it alone means no factory boss, but demands a sacrifice in terms of worker's rights and job security. In a society where everybody is their own boss, the state and private companies may find it easier to dodge their social responsibilities.

Kusakabe worries that the hard-won advantages Thai women enjoy compared with their counterparts in other Asian countries are eroding. "Women in Thailand have enjoyed decades of economic independence. They own land. Factories and companies prefer to hire women because they are seen as more reliable than men. In Asia, Thai women are in a good position, but they might lose that advantage if the job market is shrinking and if they are not provided social benefits like child care."

Back at street level, women like Somlit Lalert agree on the need for more recognition and acceptance. "We would like to have access to the same social benefits as government workers," she said. "We provide a public service."

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