The Thai Labour Museum shows the local history of sweat, strife and toil
You may have already noticed that most of the smiling people on Bangkok’s omnipresent advertising billboards look much the same: young, handsome and above all white with a Chinese—eventually Korean—look-out.
This is a long-ingrained image of the Thai society in people’s mind. The successful ones in Thailand—which means the wealthy ones—are Thai with Chinese blood, a symbol of affluence. But many forget that a successful business relies on the community, often simple workers. Labour movements in Thailand estimate that the labour sector has about 38 million people, but very few of them have an influence on politics and/or social development.
The task of the Thai Labour Museum is to tell the story of labourers. Located near to Makkasan station, in a historical building which used to be the Police office, the Thai Labour Museum is dedicated to these anonymous people, the vast ‘army’ of workers who mostly migrated from their rural areas into the big cities to work in factories, workshops, and other underprivileged locations.
The small museum is free to enter and admittedly looks a bit shabby from the outside. Inside is dark but it is an exciting plunge into the relationship between the haves and have-nots. It talks about slavery in the old times. King Rama V finally freed Siam from slavery in 1874, but he did so step-by-step in a bid to avoid Upper-Class alienation. In 1905, slavery from birth was abolished and it wasn’t until the reign of King Rama VI that slavery was entirely eradicated.
The museum tells stories through pictures, original posters, and items about the conditions of work, all mostly from the 19th to the dawn of the 20th century. Of particular interest is the evolution of workers and labour rights after 1932 during the two ‘revolution’ movements under Prime Minister Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and then PM Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. While the latter was a staunch anti-Communist, driving a very authoritarian regime, he had a real social policy towards the less privileged. Prices of basics were freed or even reduced, free care was provided, and city services fees reduced, if not abolished. An important step was to allow small business to sell their food or items in the streets of Bangkok, the start of today’s street food and street market traders directly!
An exhibition within the museum is also dedicated to Thanong Po-Arn, Thailand’s Labour President who fought to give social security rights to workers. He disappeared during the Military Coup of 1991. His legacy is part of the museum’s education process.
In front of the museum, is a sculpture called “Dignity of Labour” where a couple are seen pushing a large wheel, a symbol of the struggle for women and men to achieve status through work.
Here is an interesting and educational museum that should absolutely be explored. A visit will help you understand the history of Thai people and the history of the county, too. It will make you think differently about the hundreds of people you cross everyday, as well as all of those smiling billboards you see.
The Thai Labour Museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm. Check the time as afternoon opening hours can vary. Mornings are best to visit The Museum is free, but contributions are welcomed. The museum is easy to access from Makkasan or Ratchaprarop SRT stations along the airport express line.
Address: Ratchathewi Rd., Makkasan, Ratchathewi, Bangkok 10400. Tel: 66 2251 3173
By Luc Citrinot