20 Nov 2011

Thai flood leaves unemployment crisis in its wake

Flood damaged blue chip companies consider quitting Thailand threatening hundreds of thousands of jobs, reports John Sparks from Ayutthaya, Thailand.

The water levels may be receding – but weeks of devestating floods have left Thailand facing a new crisis – one of unemployment.

Among the areas badly hit were the country’s giant industrial estates – filled with factories that produce around half the world’s computer hard drives. As the clear up operation gets underway – some manufacturers are considering moving their production out of the country – putting thousands of jobs at risk.

There are seven giant industrial estates in Thailand that have been flooded – hosting 2,500 companies including Honda, Toyota, Hitachi, Canon and Nikon.

Facing the threat of the loss of the hundreds of thousands of jobs, the Thai authorities are desperately trying to pump the water out of the estates.

The Rojana Industrial Estate in central Thailand is home to hundreds of factories owned by scores of blue chip companies. But the floods are bad for business – their owners are grabbing what they can from the devastation and getting out.

We spoke to a team of divers who had been employed to look for steel moulds in a rubber factory.

It’ll take one or two years to recover and our machines are old…I am not sure my boss will want to stay. Siam Khonyang, engineer, TDA Rubber

It is not the sort of story the owners of these industrial parks want told – journalists have been banned. Officially at least, the flood waters are receding and the situation is returning to normal, but that is not how the dive master sees it.

Sermsak Posayajinda, from Living Sea Divers, said: “One foot – that how far you can see down there – you can use a torch but it’s very difficult.”

“The water is filthy – they’ve used oil here to protect the machines from rust.”

Down there somewhere is reusable kit – worth millions of pounds – now heading for another location.

The worry is that companies employing hundreds of thousands of Thais will leave the country.

We asked the engineer at the rubber factory what he thought. Siam Khonyang an engineer at TDA Rubber said: “It’ll take one or two years to recover and our machines are old. We’d have to order new circuit boards – and I am not sure my boss will want to stay.”

That’s not what they want to hear at the high tech industrial park, where pumps are switched to full-power. Hundreds of computer manufacturers have been flooded out – and shortages for things like hard-drives are now predicted worldwide in the new year.

They are feeling the pressure in Thailand, but not everyone shares this sense of urgency.

Environmental groups say the water now being pumped out of industrial parks is contaminated. Locals will suffer they say – although the government says it is safe.

We were taken to a local encampment, perched above the deluge, and no one was happy. The water was black and smelly said one woman – like something was rotting. An elder walked us to round the back of the high tech estate – and showed us bags marked Hazardous Waste – cast adrift in the grounds of a metal factory.

In a statement, the director of the industrial estate told us his clients have good intentions but accidents may have happened.

His priority – Thailand’s priority – is fending of the waters and saving jobs. Everything else it seems, will have to wait.