Mainstreaming Workers’ Welfare in Major Infrastructure Projects: The Case of BKK Monorail
Published: 22 April 2022
Labor, health, and safety measures ensure that the rights and welfare of both local and migrant workers are protected.
In 2016, the Government of Thailand approved the Bangkok Mass Rapid Transit (BKK Monorail) Project, paving the way for the construction of two additional lines—the Pink and Yellow Lines—to expand the mass rapid transit system and ease traffic congestion in the densely populated city.
Being a major infrastructure undertaking, this project created numerous economic opportunities for construction workers not only in Thailand but also in neighboring countries.
The BKK Monorail Project is an interesting study in the area of labor management for two main reasons.
First, it is a large, high-visibility project that has the potential for magnifying the impacts of compliance—or non-compliance—with sound labor, health, and safety norms. Second, the civil works contractor brought in 5,500 foreign construction workers, creating a host of social complexities between and among foreign workers and their local counterparts and employers.
- March 2016: Project approval
- June 2019: Approval of nonsovereign financing
- Mid-2022: Expected partial operations of Pink Line and expected full commercial operations in early 2023
- Mid-2022: Expected partial operations of Yellow Line and expected full commercial operations by end of 2022
- 56,725 million Thai baht: Pink Line
- 54,768 million Thai baht: Yellow Line
- 9.9 billion Thai baht ($311 million equivalent): ADB Assistance
Labor practices that are detrimental to the workforce remain pervasive. Globally, the numbers are stark:
- 2.3 million workers every year—or 6,000 per day—die due to work-related accidents and diseases;
- 160 million workers are children—79 million of whom are exposed to hazardous working conditions;
- 24.9 million workers are in forced labor and 44% of the victims migrated either within or across borders; and
- women are paid only 77% of the wages earned by their male counterparts.
In addition to these, the engagement of migrant workers for massive construction projects presents another set of challenges, as it raises the potential risks of human trafficking, labor exploitation, and the spread of communicable diseases.
Particularly vulnerable to these risks are the poor who often only have physical labor to trade for income. Addressing these issues in major infrastructure projects is a step forward in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goals 1 (No Poverty) and 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) while still pursuing advances in Goal 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure).
Intended to ease traffic congestion in Thailand’s capital, the Pink Line will run a 34.5-kilometer route between Min Buri district in Bangkok and Khae Rai in Nonthaburi province, while the Yellow Line will operate a 30-kilometer route between Lat Phrao in Bangkok and Samrong district in Samut Prakarn province.
In 2019, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a combined 9.9 billion Thai baht ($311 million equivalent) financial package for the Eastern Bangkok Monorail Company Limited and Northern Bangkok Monorail Company Limited to finance the construction and operation of the two new lines. The project is being constructed under two engineering, procurement, and construction contracts. Civil works will be undertaken by Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction Public Company Limited (STECON) while the electrical and mechanical works as well as the rolling stock will be provided by Bombardier. Bangkok Mass Transit System Public Company Limited, acting as the project manager, was responsible for managing the interfacing of the two contracts. The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand represents the government in the concession agreement.
With the Thai economy already operating at full employment and with its construction industry among several areas where labor shortages exist, there was a need to hire migrant workers for the BKK Monorail Project. Migrant workers comprise about 5% of the total workforce and usually come from countries that share Thailand’s borders—including Myanmar and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), both of which have a labor surplus. Cambodians also migrate to Thailand in search of better pay and more opportunities.
Gauging the project’s labor management effectiveness necessitates measuring its performance in these key result areas:
|Core labor standards|
|Effective abolition of child labor||Universally accepted by all International Labour Organization (ILO) member countries that the minimum age for hazardous work is 18 years old|
|Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation||Nondiscrimination in the workplace based on race and gender|
|Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor||Protection of workers’ freedom of movement, freedom to communicate, access to travel documents, and payment of and access to wages|
|Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining||Ensuring that an association or representative association for workers’ protection and collective bargaining is in place|
|Other labor, safety, and health standards|
|Vocational guidance and training||Provision of skills training for workers|
|Complaint and Resolution Mechanism||Instituting a working complaint and resolution mechanism|
|Occupational safety and health (OSH)||Implementing an OSH program for workers|
|Social policy||Ensuring decent living conditions for workers and access to family members, and enforcing measures to protect women|
|Inspection||Monitoring labor/social issues and mitigation measures|
The Government of Thailand, ADB, the Bangkok Mass Transit System, and project contractors each adopted different approaches to promote workers’ welfare. The government’s approach revolved around the enforcement of national labor laws and regulations. ADB used contractual agreements to complement Thai labor laws and uphold adherence to international labor, safety, and health standards. Project contractors relied on internal labor management programs that sought to align with best industry practices.
Compliance with core labor standards
Thailand has ratified six of the eight International Labor Organization (ILO) fundamental conventions upholding the four core labor standards. These standards are confirmed in national laws, including in the 2017 constitution, Civil and Commercial Code, 1998 Labor Protection Act and its 2008 amendments, and 2015 Gender Equality Act 2015. Three laws strengthen the legal framework on child and forced labor: (i) Penal Code; (ii) Anti Trafficking of Persons Act; and (iii) Child Protection Act.
Thailand’s Department of Labor Protection and Welfare required and monitored contractors’ compliance to laws and regulations governing workers’ contracts, minimum wages, working hours, and other protections not only for Thai workers but for foreign workers as well. Labor inspections undertaken by the department and ADB’s review missions and monitoring show that the contractors are diligently complying with the country’s laws and regulations and enforcing labor law and core labor standards for all workers.
Foreign workers were covered by an employment cooperation agreement between the governments of Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar that provided for oversight of the workers’ condition by staff in their respective embassies in Bangkok. By negotiating the terms of the employment cooperation agreement covering foreign workers, their respective governments in effect acted to support collective bargaining and explained the contract conditions for the workers' protection.
For its part, ADB’s financing agreements required compliance to both national labor laws and core labor standards with specific reference to child labor, nondiscrimination in employment, forced labor, and freedom of association. Aside from conducting periodic independent monitoring, ADB also required the borrowers to monitor and report on the contractors’ compliance to core labor standards and other environment, health, safety, and social risk mitigation measures, which are then used partly as basis for the release of funding tranches.
Project contractors’ labor management practices are aligned with international standards. This is largely influenced by STECON’s vision to become the leading engineering and construction firm not only in Thailand but also in the region by consistently delivering projects that meet international standards. It provides the internal motivation to comply with legal requirements and contractual obligations and improve its standing as a competitive employer to attract quality workers.
Other labor, health, and safety standards
Specific measures were also implemented to address other labor standards, including occupational health, and safety issues that are fundamental in the protection of workers’ welfare.
A notable feature was the implementation of a comprehensive training program conducted by a STECON Training Center that prepared Thai workers coming from various provinces and workers from Cambodia and Myanmar. Some 95% of the foreign workers were unskilled upon hiring and needed to be trained to work through various phases of construction. Pre-entry training covered basic skills in form–work installation, carpentry, masonry, plastering, rebar fixing, and scaffolding, while specialized trainings included flag manning and cherry-picker crane operation. Workers were paid for the duration of the training and awarded certificates upon completion. Additional trainings on cultural orientation and professional work life were also conducted.
A grievance management mechanism was instituted to handle and resolve workers’ complaints, with provisions for translation services for foreign workers.
Occupational safety and health protocols were also set in place. The construction area was fenced off and a secondary enclosure was installed in high-risk areas. Workers’ personal protective equipment is inspected upon entry to the worksite. Safety managers regularly conducted safety patrols and equipment inspections, and delivered safety and toolbox talks.
Separate and clean living quarters for each nationality were likewise provided, with consideration for married workers and their families. Couples were allowed to bring their children to visit them during school breaks, and a daycare center was set up near living quarters.
Female workers were recognized for their performance in quality control jobs, machine operation, and other detailed work. Women-focused measures were enforced, including camp rules against sexual harassment, and allowing women in committed relationships to room in with their partners.
Routine and random inspections were also independently conducted by the government, ADB, and contractors to check on workers’ living and working conditions, compliance to camp and work site regulations, and workers’ complaints, among others.
Given these measures, assessments of the project’s labor management effectiveness turned up notable results in terms of compliance with core labor standards as well as safety and health standards.
With risk mitigation measures in place, there was visible compliance to standards that prevented child labor, discrimination in employment, and forced labor.
No workers below 18 were engaged in the project. Women comprised 20% of the combined workforce for both monorail lines, while foreign workers were 34% of the Pink Line workforce and 23% of the Yellow Line workforce.
The employment cooperation agreement covering foreign workers played a significant role not only in regulating the flow of migrant workers from neighboring countries into Thailand but also in ensuring foreign workers’ protection throughout their stay there.
All workers in the project could freely move around during off-hours, have access to travel and work permits as well as communication devices, and received their wages through a bank account opened for each of them. Every worker signed an employment contract using the standard format of Thailand’s Ministry of Labor that stipulates the payment of minimum wage and other protections.
Workers told stories of being able to support their families by remitting most of their wages back home via mobile phone apps to provide for everyday expenses, children’s education, and even purchase assets, such as farmlands.
The project also performed well on other labor, safety, and health standards.
As a result of skills development training, some workers graduated from being unskilled labor to qualified construction foremen. Continuous skills upgrading allowed them to work in the project on multiple 2-year contracts and across several phases of construction—as opposed to shorter-term arrangements common in building projects. Having upgraded skills also qualified workers to apply for higher positions within the project and to negotiate for higher pay and positions in following engagements back in their home countries.
Workers’ living and working conditions complied with standards set by the health, sanitation, and labor laws of Thailand, and workers’ complaints related to these were addressed promptly. Workers’ anecdotes reflect a sense of satisfaction in their living and working conditions—often citing such benefits as higher wages, access to family members, predictable work hours, and availability of healthcare services.
A number of review missions were conducted by ADB since the start of construction. Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration through its district offices and the Department of Health inspected the work sites every other month. More frequent inspections on environment and occupational health and safety were conducted by project contractors and United Analyst and Engineering Consultant Company Limited, the external environmental, health, and safety monitor which reports to the Mass Rapid Transit Authority on the implementation of the projects’ environmental management plans.
While the project complied with most of the core labor standards, one area that can be improved is its safekeeping arrangements for workers’ travel and work documentation. While these were made available on demand, management’s possession of passports, visas, and work permits falls short of international requirements on workers’ access to travel documents. Corrective actions identify the need for management to find a solution that will ensure workers’ documents are safe and provide them ease of access.
Useful insights could be gleaned from good practices in the project’s labor management approach.
First, upholding national labor laws and abiding by commitments to international core labor standards contribute to improving a country’s system of good governance and to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong Institutions). In the case of the BKK Monorail Project, many of the positive results may be attributed to the alignment of Thailand’s laws and regulations with the policies of ADB, Bangkok Mass Transit System, and contractors to advance workers’ welfare protection. Companies that are internally driven to adhere to best practices tend to adopt a labor management approach that complies with—and even exceeds—requirements under national laws, contractual controls, and other risk management systems. Thus, (i) careful selection of suitable partners in project implementation, (ii) clearly setting the ground rules, and (iii) making sure that these are followed through with monitoring are crucial steps in upholding labor standards.
Second, the benefits of major infrastructure projects can be multiplied beyond users of the end-product and advance economic opportunities for workers who belong to the poor and vulnerable groups. Further, such projects can have spillover development effects to neighboring countries and their workers—owing to the wages earned and skills gained that go a long way in expanding workers’ capacity to provide for their families and contribute to the development of their communities. The economic opportunities generated and skills transferred from an upper middle-income economy to lower middle-income economies show how regional cooperation can work to promote socioeconomic growth.
Finally, investments made in upholding labor, safety, and health standards pay dividends by strengthening and reinforcing the country’s system of labor legislation governance, improving project marketability, reducing reputational risks, and enhancing borrower/clients and other project stakeholders’ public image and standing. These are intangible values that, by far, outweigh the cost of noncompliance. Adhering to best labor practices, as in the BKK Monorail Project, can result to high public confidence not only in the project itself but also in its proponents.
Asian Development Bank (ADB). Thailand: Bangkok Mass Rapid Transit Project (Pink and Yellow Lines).
Asian Development Bank (ADB). Core Labor Standards Handbook.
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