Dion de Mandaroon is an activist and Din Deng contributor who volunteers for No One Cares – Bangkok, a horizontally organised volunteer group made up of around 20 people. No One Cares was recently formed during the second lockdown in Thailand. They provide emergency supplies and medical aid to temporary worker camps in Bangkok, which have been sealed shut since the imposition of the latest lockdown.
Could you tell us about what these worker camps were before Covid and some of the problems they had before the pandemic?
Worker camps are temporary housing provided by the building company for the construction workers to live in, near or at the construction site. Typically they hold around 70 to 100 people but they can go up as high as 700 people. They have very low-quality buildings, often just iron sheets for walls and roofs, sometimes they’re just people sleeping on the floor under an outdoor canopy tent, while some are higher quality, like a prefab shelter if they’re very lucky. A lot of the workers live with their families in the camps, so there are often a lot of kids in there. As for their lifestyle… It’s like, they move from one camp to another after the job is done, making what little money they can and sending some back home. But right now they’re not allowed to work, so they have no income at all.
Are most of the workers foreign?
Many foreigners are from Burma, Cambodia, Laos and there are a lot of Thai workers too, I would say around 60% are Thai. Some of the foreign workers are legal, some are illegal. The illegal ones don’t receive any support from the government at all, even if they have Covid or a serious medical problem.
Are these, legally speaking, casual workers? Do they have labour contracts?
It depends, they’re mixed, some do some don’t. Usually, it depends on how big the company is. For sure these companies are violating labour laws and the police just turn a blind eye and pretend they don’t see it, they don’t see it as their problem. Particularly during this wave of Covid, the police just try not to get involved.
Were there any problems in the first lockdown with these workers?
No, they were allowed to work through the first lockdown last year. They were only just closed this time, around a month ago.
What’s different about this lockdown, what’s happened?
This time the Covid numbers are a lot higher, so the government just decided to shut down the camps and lock the workers inside. They think if they let the workers go back home they’ll bring Covid back to other provinces, but obviously, that’s not effective because the numbers are going up everywhere all over the country.
Are there many cases of Covid in the camps?
At first, around 3 weeks ago, we didn’t get many cases of Covid in the camps. Now though, we’re receiving a lot of reports of heavily infected camps and the government isn’t doing anything. We have a team of volunteer doctors who are trying to help fight the disease, but people are dying in there, in addition to the homeless people who are dying in the streets as well.
How did you get involved and how does No One Cares work and how does the organisation work?
When this lockdown started, I just personally called for donations from friends and bought things for a few camps, then I heard about other people doing stuff like this, so we got together with some like-minded people. A friend of a friend, Neeraj Kim, started organizing with people in his network and we grew from there. We were immediately overwhelmed by how many camps there were, this was around 3 weeks ago. First, we had to find out where the camps are, so we made a Google Form, so that people could go and survey their areas, to find out where the camps are, because the government doesn’t have any database for this. So we had volunteers do that initial research, we compiled them into a big spreadsheet, of where they are, how many people there are, who is the internal contact person for the camp, what they need, etc.
Now we have a huge database of 700 camps and it’s growing. So we have this open chat on the Line app, where people who want to help come to coordinate. We have a team who matches donors to camps in urgent need of supplies and we give the donors the contact information of the camp so they help directly. Or if it’s really urgent we have our own people who can deliver stuff from our house directly to the camp. We also have volunteer doctors who are prescribing medicines to bring into the camps, like we’re running a drug cartel, we have medicine packed and ready for any camps that need them.
What we see is solidarity between donors in the Line Chat group. For example, some donors have only rice, others have eggs, and they come together and pool what they have for a camp without our team having to tell them to. It’s like with this mutual aid effort, we have opened up a kind of communication between people that has nothing to do with looking out for themselves, which is very refreshing to see.
We always emphasize that what we are doing is not charity, and we tell the donors as much. It’s our group’s main message that everyone is equal. You could say we are trying to raise class consciousness without being outwardly leftist.
Are there other groups helping out?
There are others doing mutual aid for people in general, but we’re the first and only group that focuses on the trapped camp workers.
How are resources allocated?
We divide the camps into different levels of urgency using a traffic light system. Green means they’re ok, they can survive, they have food from their employers almost every day or maybe from the government, these are very rare. Orange is when they receive food from their company maybe once every two weeks. While red is for those running out of food, or with a very serious Covid outbreak who aren’t being supported by their employers. All we can do though is bring them very basic medication like paracetamol and stuff for the kids like formula and diapers, as well as offer them medical advice.
So the government is helping a bit?
Various different government agencies help, but not enough and actually the government only gives food to the foreign workers. They have a quota for foreign workers in the camp and they give some ready-made meals, one meal a day. So the people in the camps try to share it out, which is obviously not enough.
And when you say they’ve closed the camps, it means nobody can leave and nobody can go inside, is that right?
Exactly. They even have soldiers or police guarding the gates.
How do the authorities react to your activities?
Actually, some of the aid calls we’ve received come from the soldiers stationed there. They’re not ordered to do so, they’re like low ranked soldiers and just want to help because the military isn’t doing anything. But most of the time the soldiers are not at all cooperative. Sometimes when we go to survey camps, the soldiers just say no, we’re not giving you any information, they’re actively blocking us from helping.
Do you think the government actually wants these workers to die?
I honestly think the government is just incompetent, less than malicious, although we can’t truly separate the two. I think when they’re blocking us, it’s a chain of command issue more than anything else. The military always treats civilians with hostility, so you could call it malice in a systematic way.
What’s it like when you go into the camps?
There was one camp where the workers were separated because some had Covid. Those who had Covid, they were sleeping on the floor outdoors, they had like a tarp to shield them from the sun and rain, then it rained at night and the area was flooded, they didn’t even have a place to sleep. All we could do was bring them some inflatable mattresses and basic supplies, they were very grateful for that. Then the media picked it up and the ministry of labour came and made a big show of it, like helping them out. In another camp I went to, they were running out of food. So we brought them basic food, they were so grateful, they even bowed down you know?
With the foreign workers, they probably don’t expect much government assistance, particularly for those working illegally. But for the Thai workers, are they surprised by how abhorrently they’re being treated?
I wouldn’t say they’re surprised. The Ministry of Labour has always fucked over the workers, everyone knows not to expect anything from the ministry, so when the camps were locked down they probably knew they weren’t going to get any help, even from other ministries, like the Ministry of Health are absent too.
What do you need right now?
We don’t really accept donations, if we can, we try to directly connect donors with people in the camps, so they can leave the stuff at the gates and the workers can come and get it. But we have our house where we keep some basic essentials. Really we need more types of medicine, we only have stuff to treat the really basic mild Covid symptoms, but nothing for severe cases. We are trying to expand our medical stash. We now have some Budesonide inhalers and Prednisolone pills. We also have a few oxygen concentrators for the really severe cases.
How long do you think this will continue? And if it continues long-term what’s the plan for your organisation?
I hope it doesn’t go on for much longer. We’re also pressuring the authorities to do something, we have a dedicated team for that. We don’t really know long term, but we’re doing all we can right now.
These workers were living in very bad conditions pre-Covid, do you have any plans to continue this organisation after the current crisis?
Not really, not yet anyway. We could repurpose, we have a lot of data and connections in the camps, but right now it’s emergency relief, to keep everyone alive at the end of the day.