BANGKOK — With the coronavirus bringing economic activity to a standstill, Southeast Asian countries are extending cash and other assistance to workers most vulnerable to job losses and financial difficulties.
Thailand’s cabinet on Tuesday approved monthly assistance of 5,000 baht ($153) for 9 million informal workers, lasting six months. The government initially planned a three-month program for 3 million people, but expanded the scope after receiving a flood of applications. The scheme is now expected to cost 270 billion baht, or roughly $8.25 billion.
Various businesses ranging from massage parlors to souvenir stalls have been forced to close since Thailand declared a state of emergency in late March. Most of those who lost their jobs were informal workers — those who lack official contracts, benefits and social protection, and are often overlooked in official statistics.
Roughly 1.3 billion people work in the informal sector across the Asia-Pacific region, a 2018 report by the International Labor Organization found. Though they account for a relatively small portion of the workforce in developed economies like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, they make up the majority in countries like Thailand. Overall, 68% of Asia-Pacific workers are in the informal sector. Concerns have been raised that leaving them to fend for themselves could lead to social unrest.
The Philippines is providing up to 8,000 pesos ($158) a month for two months to 1.8 million low-income households. Day laborers and other informal workers are struggling under a lockdown in Luzon, the island home to Manila, and protested their conditions on April 1.
Indonesia intends to roll out a youth job training program as planned in August, aiming to keep more young workers in the formal economy. The country also decided late last month to cover the entire cost of coronavirus treatment for its citizens, so that low-income individuals will seek medical attention instead of spreading the virus to others.
India, where informal workers make up 80% of the labor force, the government is distributing 5 kg of rice or wheat monthly to 800 million low-income individuals for three months.
Yet these measures target only citizens and not migrant workers from abroad. Over 3 million laborers from Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere work in Thailand. Travel bans to curb the spread of the coronavirus prevent many such workers from returning home.
The coronavirus could push 11 million more people into poverty in the Asia-Pacific, the World Bank projected at the end of March. The region already has 710 million in poverty — 35% of its labor force.
“The good news is that the region has strengths it can tap, but countries will have to act fast and at a scale not previously imagined,” said Victoria Kwakwa, vice president for East Asia and the Pacific at the World Bank.