Women are leading the charge for gig worker rights in Thailand

When a 19-year-old food delivery rider died in a road accident last year in Bangkok, Supaporn “Ja” Panprasit, another gig worker, demanded compensation from the Line Man app. She spent months following up with the police and even raised about $500 for the deceased worker’s family from the riders’ aid group she had founded.

Supaporn, 37, who herself was hit by a car last summer, then petitioned the Thai labor ministry for a government compensation fund for gig workers. While there was no regulatory change, Supaporn’s campaign was widely covered by local media.

“People think that me being a female leader is quite cool,” Supaporn told Rest of Worldin a KFC restaurant where her group, Rider Center, holds meetings and birthday parties for members. Apart from support and financial assistance when a member dies or is injured, the group also provides a sense of community, she said.

“Many riders are depressed, including me. It’s depressing to meet targets, sustain our lives, but I have friends (in this group) who provide support,” said Supaporn, who has been a rider with Grab, Southeast Asia’s biggest platform company, for five years.

While the majority of motorcycle ride-hailing and delivery riders in Thailand are men, in recent years, difficult economic conditions have pushed more women into this form of gig work. The number of women Grab drivers in Thailand increased by over 45% during the Covid-19 outbreak. The company did not say how many women it employed in total.

Women gig workers in Thailand and elsewhere face unique challenges, ranging from lower pay to harassment to inadequate public toilets. They also encounter hostility from their male counterparts and are afforded few protections by platforms, research shows. In response, women drivers from the Philippines to Nigeria to Brazil have set up mutual aid and support groupsas companies and government authorities have failed to attend to their needs.

“It’s depressing to meet targets, sustain our lives, but I have friends (in this group) who provide support.”

Women gig workers “experience acute forms of discrimination and harassment with minimal support from platforms,” Kavita Dattani, an assistant professor in feminist data studies at the University of Washington, told Rest of World. “As minorities in ride hailing and delivery work, they are also made invisible not only in the work but in organizing, too. (So) they have found innovative ways of collectively supporting one another.”

In Thailand, many women organizers “play vital roles within their communities sustaining mutual aid networks, even if their leadership is not always formally recognized,” Kriangsak Teerakowitkajorn, managing director of Bangkok-based nonprofit Just Economy and Labor Institute, told Rest of World.

Three women leaders in Thailand told Rest of World that despite the discrimination from customers and resentment from male riders, they see themselves as equals. They are pushing platforms and the government to improve pay and working conditions for all gig workers, and are slowly gaining recognition for solving everyday problems for their peers.

These leaders are not limited to women-only spaces; they are heading groups where they are a minority. At Supaporn’s Rider Center, only 25 of the 310 members are women; they comprise around a fifth of Thonburi Rider Group’s 2,000 members. At Fast Moving, one of the largest rider groups in Thailand, about a fourth of the 17 core members are women, said Montita “Muk” Praditphol, one of the core members.

“Men and women see things differently … but women are the minority, so it’s very difficult for women to rise,” Montita, who has been a Grab delivery rider for seven years, told Rest of World. She said male riders often criticize her comments on gig workers’ issues when she posts on her personal Facebook account; when she posts the same message anonymously on Fast Moving’s page, the reception is more positive.

While Thailand is largely a patriarchal society, the country has seen more women on the front lines of protest movements in recent years. Having more women lead gig worker campaigns is natural, Supatra Nacapew, a commissioner at the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT), told Rest of World.

“Nowadays, women play an important role in human rights movements, not only for labor rights but also for civil and political rights, where there are also female movement leaders,” she said.

Women’s socially mandated caregiving responsibilities can be advantageous for movement building, according to Poonsap Tulaphan, director of the Foundation for Labour and Employment Promotion, a nonprofit in Bangkok. “Women have to take care of their family members, so they get used to helping, and understand that helping others can lead to success,” she told Rest of World.

This has been the experience of Prapaporn “Mam” Phon-in, who set up the Thonburi Rider Group in Bangkok in 2019 to assist workers injured in accidents. “Sometimes the leaders (of other groups) would question my ability as a woman,” she told Rest of World.

Prapaporn, 46, has been a delivery rider for Grab for five years. She said she has learned to ignore male riders who refuse to join her group, or undermine her leadership. Her group members know they can count on her to help, even in the dead of night. “I’ve sacrificed everything, even my personal time,” she said.

“Sometimes the leaders (of other groups) would question my ability as a woman.”

The women members at Fast Moving, Rider Center, and Thonburi Rider Group have played an active role in several protests since December 2020, calling on Grab to improve pay and working conditions. Some of these demands were met, Montita said.

“Grab takes our partner experiences seriously,” the company’s spokesperson told Rest of Worldwithout commenting on specific demands. “We value our driver-partners’ feedback and use it to find ways to improve existing features or launch new tools that address their pain points and enhance their driving experience.”

This year, Grab launched a campaign in Thailand to attract more women drivers. A Facebook group called Grab Super Sherowhich currently has more than 600 members, provides the women “an opportunity to connect with each other and exchange knowledge and experiences, which could benefit their career and self-development,” according to a press release.

Building on these small wins, Prapaporn’s ultimate goal is to have a law that requires platforms to contribute to gig workers’ social security. She also dreams of forming a union for gig workers in Thailand, where it is hard for informal workers to do so. Even though she has been a leader of her group for five years, she knows it would be difficult.

“I actually have never thought of myself as the leader of my group,” Prapaporn said. “Sometimes, it takes 30–40 years to form a union. So I will support the new generation to become good leaders in the future.”

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