Millions of Thais left out of government's Covid-19 cash relief scheme

Commuters on a boat on the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, on April 15, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Scores of Thai people suffering the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have been left out of a government's financial relief scheme after some were wrongly classified as working in the agricultural sector, which has its own rescue package.

Of 24 million applicants for the "No One Left Behind" scheme, which promises 5,000 baht ($218) in cash every month for three months, only about 3.2 million people have recently received the first lot of payment.

Although the government said only nine million applicants would be eligible for the payout, many in dire straits held out hope of some relief as the coronavirus outbreak stripped them of earnings from their informal jobs.

In a rare protest since Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha took control of the country in 2014, about 100 Thais whose applications were rejected, including street vendors and motorcycle taxi operators, marched to the Finance Ministry on Tuesday (April 14) to demand payment.

The government had wrongly categorised some as farmers, saying those employed in the agricultural sector will receive financial support via a different financial scheme. Others were unhappy that they did not receive any money.

"The system called me a farmer but I have never had a farm or touched a hoe in my entire life," said clothes vendor Mareena Gakhao.

The market where Ms Mareena set up her stall in the southern Surat Thani province has been closed since early March, which has left her with no income.

The 42-year-old said she plans to appeal the rejection in the coming days.

"I may have to try to sell the clothes if I'm rejected again. I don't mind getting arrested as it's better than starving to death," she added.

Thais have also taken their unhappiness online with the "We're not Farmers" hashtag trending as the top tweet in the kingdom earlier this week.

The government has advised the public to file appeals online instead of turning up at the Finance Ministry but Mr Chayet Boonyawong said there is no point, adding that there are discrepancies with the government database as well.

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He said his identification card does not match government records online.

"The government's artificial intelligence (AI) system does not know reality," said the 55-year-old, who became a street hawker after losing his job with a shipping company in January.

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the struggles of low-income workers, economists say.

"It is quite clear that the people who are most affected are low-income (earners) and they tend to be women. It is this group that needs to be targeted in the 'No One Left Behind' (scheme)," said Chulalongkorn University's Dr Jessica Vechbanyongratana, a labour economist.

Lockdown measures have directly affected the jobs of up to 7.1 million people, with those in the service sector and workers on part-time contracts most affected, according to research by a group of Thai economists released this week.

Dr Vechbanyongratana suggested that the scheme could provide 3,000 baht or less, "so that everybody gets something to make sure people don't go without food or basic necessities".

The Bank of Thailand is expecting the economy to contract by 5.3 per cent this year even as the government is seeking additional financial resources to provide more cash handouts and bailouts, as well as to meet healthcare needs.

The government has tabled a Bill seeking loans of one trillion baht, which is expected to be given royal endorsement in the coming weeks, with monies disbursed from May.

Economists say it may push Thailand's public debt from 40 per cent of its gross domestic product to up to 57 per cent next year.

In a televised address late Friday, Mr Prayut admitted that the government alone does not have all the answers to the Covid-19 crisis and has called on the 20 richest Thais for their help in battling the economic woes.

"The tycoons have massive influence in the country's economy. I'd like to ask them to play a greater role in helping out the country."

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