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Thai celebrity and pilots take gig jobs in post-pandemic economy

Labor market undergoes wrenching changes despite relatively short lockdown

Thai actor Pheerawas Khunlanunthwatn or Amp joined Grab's fleet as a part-time worker amid Thailand's lockdown. (Source photo by screenshot from Amp’s Instagram account)

BANGKOK -- Actor Pheerawas Khunlanunthwatn hopes his latest role -- as a delivery driver for Grab -- will be an inspiring one for his fellow Thais as the kingdom emerges from its coronavirus outbreak.

The 33-year-old known as Amp, who boasts more than 620,000 Instagram followers, joined the tech group's fleet as a part-time worker amid the nation's lockdown.

The production of TV talk shows and films was suspended as part of efforts to stop the spread of the virus. Cameras only started to roll again on May 17, during the second phase of the easing of restrictions. The authorities currently allow filmmakers to use a crew of a maximum 50 people per shoot.

"The delivery experience is actually quite fun," Amp told a TV news program. "I plan to continue this side job even as the filming of dramas resumes. We don't shoot dramas every day and this is a great way to supplement my income."

Thailand has coped with the new coronavirus better than some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, notably Singapore and Malaysia. Nearly 3,100 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Thailand as of Friday, and the country lifted its lockdown relatively quickly, with most businesses, including cinemas and massage parlors, to be allowed to reopen on June 1. But the damage has been done to the job market.

Thailand's unemployment is expected to hit a record high of 5 million people this year, or 13% of the total workforce, according to the Economic Intelligence Center, a research unit of Siam Commercial Bank. That compares with 3.4% during the 1998 Asian financial crisis and 1.5% during the 2009 global financial crisis.

The situation has Thais rethinking job security.

Thai Lion Air pilot Thanun Khantatatbumroong also decided to join the fleet of Grab to deliver food when Thailand entered its lockdown in mid March.

He wasn't sure when he would be able to take to the skies again as his airline had grounded most flights, slashing his income by 75% for six months.

"I want people to get rid of the stereotype that pilots have a big ego and that they are superior to others," he wrote in a Facebook post. "We are no different than any salaried men like you."

In Thailand, pilots and other flight crew members are regarded as high-paying dream jobs. But rather than waiting out the pandemic, Thanun and other pilots and flight crew decided to turn to other gigs to supplement their dwindling income.

Economists say more Thais are expected to become gig workers post-pandemic, after the lockdown left many with no choice but to resort to online channels to shop and order food. In 2018, some 30% of Thailand's workforce was already invested in the gig economy as people embraced part-time work to earn an extra income, according to the Economic Intelligence Center.

"Young people constitute major victims of social and economic consequences of the pandemic, and there is a risk that they will be scarred throughout their working lives -- leading to the emergence of a 'lockdown generation'," the International Labor Organization said in a Wednesday report.

"The risks in the labor market could spill over to affect the quality of life of the already vulnerable household sector," the Economic Intelligence Center said. "Currently, around 60% of Thai households possess insufficient financial assets to cover three months of expenses."

The government has approved multiple rounds of stimulus measures to help prop up the economy during the pandemic, though it is still too early to tell far those measures will go in easing the financial burden many Thais look set to face in the long term.

"I have to give a thumbs-up to the government's efforts in offering cash handouts to people whose jobs have been impacted by the pandemic," said a headmistress at a language school teaching Thai to foreigners. Her school had to cut staffers' wages as all classes across the nation will only be allowed to resume in July.

While Thais are losing jobs, media have reported a rise in suicide cases. Thailand's suicide rate is the highest in Southeast Asia, at 14.4 per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization's 2016 data. That was equivalent to 10,000 suicide deaths per year.

The Ministry of Public Health said its mental health hotline saw a spike in calls to 600 in March alone, from about 30 calls in January.

Acknowledging the trend, the government has launched an app to help people assess their stress, depression and potential suicidal tendency. So far, the app has been downloaded over 10,000 times on Google Play Store.

Thai Lion Air pilot Thanun's predicament is reflective of the 22,000 employees at rival Thai Airways. The government reduced its majority holdings in the troubled flag carrier to below 50% on May 19, a move to allow the private sector to buy its stake so that restructuring could be initiated after bankruptcy proceedings. Three day later, the government said it plans to lay off 6,000 people and will "stop repaying all debt and start from scratch."

Thai Airways has been unable to turn a profit every year since 2012, except in 2016. It reported total losses of 12 billion baht ($375 million) in 2019. The pandemic dealt the carrier a further blow, as Thailand banned international air travel till the end of June. International Air Transport Association, an industry group, warned passenger revenue would not recover to 2019 levels until 2023.

Government officials have called upon their fellow Thais to demonstrate resilience and work together to overcome this difficult period.

Thanun and his colleagues decided to do whatever they could, such as making desserts and selling them online. Some flight engineers even rolled up their sleeves and went door-to-door to repair and clean air conditioners.

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