Family Ties, Faith, Flea Markets Help the New Jobless

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Thailand's economy was among the fastest growing in the world, young university graduates like Khun Angkana would have been on a conveyor belt to success - with a well-paid job and credit cards for lavish shopping sprees.

Today, beneath a blistering sun, Ms. Angkana, wearing a pink T-shirt and blue jeans, sits in a roadside parking lot, selling the designer clothes she bought in more prosperous times.

She's joined the swollen ranks of Thailand's jobless since losing her position as a tour guide in February. She earns about $25 a day peddling used clothes.

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"It's better than staying at home," Angkana says.

In this former "tiger" economy where Asia's currency crisis was ignited last July, as many as 2 million more Thais could be unemployed by the end of this year, the government predicts. The economy has gone from 7 percent growth in 1996 to full-blown recession.

But many Thais, perhaps because of their Buddhist faith, appear to accept a reversal of their fortunes with calm equanimity. Buddhism encourages its followers to passively endure bad times as one of the inevitable cycles of life.

Young Buddhist entrepreneur Khun Pornchai isn't panicked. When the good times rolled, he rolled with them. As his family furniture business blossomed, Mr. Pornchai went on spending sprees, notching up monthly loan repayments of $2,000. "I used to earn $4,000 in a month easily," recalls Pornchai, who now sells clothes from a makeshift stall.

"This is a learning experience. I'm not worried about the future. Buddhism teaches us to make the most of the present and to accept this kind of situation," he says.

Relying on Mom and Dad

While Buddhism, the nominal religion of 90 percent of Thailand's 60 million people, may help them cope with the stresses of an uncertain future, traditional family structures provide a more practical safety net against material destitution.

"If you ask most graduates what they're going to do next, they will say that they are going to help out with the family business," explains labor expert Lae Dilokvidhyarat.

"In the past 30 years, family members were often forgotten as part of the process of individualization. Now people are falling back on family ties," he adds. "The current situation is helping to reactivate the family system."

Khun Sutthisak, a recently unemployed art director, agrees. "I'm not worried about money because if I do have a problem, I'll just call my parents and they'll send me some," he says.

Unemployment in Thailand is not always what it seems. While the government may record millions without jobs, most Thais are still unfamiliar with the concept of unemployment.

"In rural areas, for example, it's hard to find anyone who's really unemployed," notes Mr. Dilokvidhyarat. "No matter how poor you are, there's always something to do."

For the time being at least, family solidarity and Buddhist-inspired calm are helping to absorb the worst social impact of Thailand's economic crisis.

But as time passes and savings are gradually depleted, the government will likely come under increasing pressure to find answers to people's problems.

Slow government response

Until now, government initiatives have been limited. The government's most visible response to the crisis has been to drive as many as 300,000 immigrant workers out of the country.

Critics of the policy point out that the vacancies left behind will not necessarily be filled by more expensive Thai workers.

This August, a New Labor Protection Act will increase severance pay from six to eight months for workers who have been employed for six to 10 years. Those who have been employed for a decade will get a 10-month payoff.

In the short term, however, observers have pointed out that employers are rushing to push workers out before the new law comes into force.

From his office, atop one of Bangkok's newer skyscrapers, recruitment consultant Philippe Kopcsan sees a more realistic employment market on the horizon.

"It was a necessary readjustment," he explains. "We are now reaching a normal balance between employers and employees. During the boom, salaries were crazy: There was excessive consumption."

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