Despite its highly qualified workforce, Thailand's lack of foreign-language skills,
coupled with a poor understanding of regional integration and an incoherent plan to promote expertise in certain fields will hold the country back from reaping the benefits of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) once it kicks off in 2015, a study warns.
The study conducted by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, along with interviews carried out by The Nation, found that Thailand lacks a concrete strategy to develop opportunities for skilled labour within the AEC.
In 2015, Asean member states will be committed under the Mutual Recognition Arrangement to allow the free flow of workers in seven key professions: doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, architects, accountants and surveyors. Asean professionals in these areas of expertise will be able to work in another Asean country, providing they meet qualification and work permit requirements in each market.
However, Aat Pisanwanich, director of the UTCC's Centre for International Trade Studies, said Thai professionals were unlikely to directly benefit from the liberalisation of labour as they lacked an interest in working abroad and possessed fewer language skills than their counterparts in other Asean countries.
He said liberalisation could also be a challenge for Thailand's domestic workforce as workers from other Asean countries with good qualifications and better language skills would be competing with Thai workers for the same jobs in the liberalised sectors. For example, Filipino nurses would be able to compete effectively with Thai nurses as their qualifications are on a par with those of their Thai counterparts, and at the same time their superior language skill will give them an advantage over Thai nurses.
"The Thai government needs to do more than just educate people about the basic principles of Asean liberalisation. It should draw on a concrete agenda to promote the development of careers in these professions. There should be a clear strategy for each profession on the criteria for accepting foreign workers and for encouraging Thai professionals to work in other Asean countries," said Aat.
According to the study, Thailand has made no preparations for these professions and skilled workers lack a clear understanding of the challenges faced and the benefits to be gained in a seamless market. At the other end of the spectrum, however, some domestic industry sectors could benefit from labour liberalisa-|tion - especially those where there is a shortage of skilled labour, said Aat.
To promote more opportunities for Thai workers, Thailand also needs to bring its education curriculum into line with international standards as well as promote the study and awareness of different cultures. In addition, a strategy needs to be developed on grooming the next generation to serve the demands of Asean - rather than purely focusing on domestic market needs, Aat said.
Based on interviews conducted by the UTCC among the six professions to be liberalised, approximately half of the interviewees said they did not understand their prospects within the AEC. Notably, about 20-100 per cent of those professionals interviewed did not foresee any benefits for their respective careers from Asean integration.
The study also showed that despite professional skills which were on a par with those of their counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia, Thai professionals lost this advantage when it came down to language skills. The study also demonstrated that a shortage of labour in Thailand meant that many professionals were in constant demand at home and there was therefore no impetus for them to seek employment abroad.
Banjongjitt Angsusingh, director of the Trade Negotiation Department's Bureau of Trade Services and Investment, said there should be clear standards for each profession to ensure the competitiveness of Thai workers ahead of the AEC's implementation. This would minimise the risk of local workers losing their jobs to those from other Asean countries.
He said that the development of language skills - not only in English but also in other Asean languages - was important for Thai workers so that they could operate successfully at home as well as increase their opportunities to work in other Asean countries. He also said Thailand should set itself up as a centre for career development in Asean by promoting the development of careers entailing a high level of skill, such as those in the hospitality and tourism industry, logistics and technology.
Watcharas Leelawath, executive director of the International Institute of Trade and Development (ITD), concurred that Thailand urgently needed to develop language and IT skills as well as establish a career standard to ensure the competitiveness of professional workers ahead of the free flow of labour under the AEC.
"The development of language skills and communication in English, in particular, is essential for Thai workers in preparation for Asean liberalisation. The government, in cooperation with private enterprises and agencies, should accelerate human-resources development to ensure that Thai workers can survive when the free regional movement of labour is permitted," said Watcharas.
He added that Thailand had no need to worry about the free flow of professional workers as long as there was a clear plan to develop their language skills, since Thai professionals already possessed the required skills relevant to their own fields of expertise.
He anticipated that Thailand would benefit from the free flow of labour as there was a shortage of workers in a number of areas, and once Thai language skills had improved, it would not be difficult to "export" Thai workers in some professions to work elsewhere in Asean.