Stock options trickle down to Thai workers

New cars fill the Lucent factory parking lot. Some worry what workers may expect next.

The sprawling industrial estate of Nawanakorn just outside the capital, Bangkok, has a distinctly gloomy air to it.

Empty plots, once rice paddies and now muddy wastelands, mark the spots where factories were planned. "For Sale" signs hang outside many completed plants, reminders of the region-wide financial disaster nearly two years ago that sent much of Thailand's industry into a tailspin.

The country of 60 million is only beginning to show signs of recovery from the 1997 crisis that erupted following the decision to allow Thailand's currency, the baht, to float on world markets.

A sharp wave of selling quickly spread to Malaysia and other emerging markets in Asia, bringing economic disaster and social upheaval to several countries. The International Monetary Fund extended large bail-out packages to Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea in the wake of the crisis.

Yet amid a booming economy in the United States, financial ripples from unprecedented information technology successes are being felt here, and are helping to lift the Thai economy.

A factory operated by Lucent Technologies, a local subsidiary of one of America's most-successful telecommunications giants, is doing its part. The Nawanakorn facility employs some 1,600 workers, mainly women. As it steadily churns out the components of tomorrow's technology, the plant has become a minor legend in the area.

"Many of the workers at Lucent drive brand-new cars," says Khun Wiramol, who earns $5 to $6 a day selling simple rice dishes at her open-air food stall a few hundred yards away.

"Last year they were giving away motorcycles and fridges. It's amazing," she says.

Some multinationals, such as Nike and popular clothing chains, have been criticized for the low wages and poor conditions workers endure under some subcontractors in Asia. But the new wealth here is seen as evidence that corporate profit sharing can trickle down to workers around the globe.

For Lucent's Thai workers, the upturn began in 1996, before the financial crisis, when the company gave stock options to its entire 100,000-member global workforce. The move was designed to keep staff motivated after Lucent ended its partnership with telecommunications giant AT&T.

Each employee was originally entitled to 100 shares, an amount later quadrupled to 400. Last September, Lucent allowed workers cash in their stock options.

To employees at Lucent's Thai plant, the sale of shares earned them as much as $21,000, a small fortune in a country where factory workers earn about $190 a month and rural salaries are about half that amount.

"I still can't believe it," says Khun Taen, a junior worker who used the payout to purchase a small home and a shop. "I thought I would have to spend the rest of my life in a small room. I am really grateful to the company."

Khun Saithong, who has worked with Lucent for six years, says, "This is a very secure company to work for.

"I don't know of any other company in Thailand that offers stock to all the employees, from the boss to the cleaners."

But while Lucent's egalitarian stance has been a boon for worker relations, some in the industry see potential dangers.

"The workers don't always fully understand why they're getting such big bonuses, and that can generate unrealistic expectations," warns James Menges, the American director of a local electronics plant here.

"In some cases, people are benefiting from something they didn't really do. Then they start wanting more, even though productivity isn't necessarily going up," he adds, noting that many companies limit stock options to more-senior and strategic staff members.

In December 1996, workers at a Sanyo factory in Thailand torched their workplace on hearing that their annual bonus was going to be cut nearly in half.

And, industry observers say, employees do not always understand that while stock options may provide a sense of ownership, their value is tied to a fickle and volatile stock market. Gains one year could become losses the next.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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