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June 24, 2017

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Diaper-wearing Thai bus conductors fight for rights

BANGKOK -- Stuck for hours each day in snarling traffic, bus conductors in Thailand's sprawling capital have found a radical solution to a lack of toilet breaks — adult diapers.

Despite years of brisk economic growth, many of Bangkok's blue-collar workers find themselves on the sharp end of relentless urbanization and stubborn wealth inequalities.

From rubbish collectors to factory workers and taxi drivers, for many of the people who keep the sprawling metropolis of 12 million people running, rising wages do not necessarily translate into a better life.

With congestion worsening, conductors on the capital's ageing buses spend long days on the polluted roads in the tropical heat — often with no toilet stops along the route.

When she developed a urinary tract infection, Watcharee Viriya had little choice but to start wearing adult diapers to cope with the many hours away from the restroom.

"It was uncomfortable when I moved, especially when I urinated inside," she recalled.

"When I arrived at the bus terminal, I had to run to get changed. I used at least two diapers a day."

She was later diagnosed with cancer of the uterus and needed to undergo surgery.

"The doctor told me that it was because of wearing dirty diapers and the substances from them going into the uterus."

With only a handful of underground or elevated rail links, many Bangkok residents rely on buses, cars, tuk-tuks or motorbikes to get around, and tax incentives have helped a growing number of people to buy their own set of four wheels.

Shocking Results

Watcharee is not alone in opting for such an extreme answer to a lack of toilet breaks: a recent survey found that 28 percent of female bus conductors in Bangkok had worn diapers on a job that requires them to work up to 16 hours a day.

"We were shocked," said Jaded Chouwilai, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation which carried out the research.

"We also found that many of them suffer urinary tract infections and stones in their bladders," he said.

"Many of the female bus conductors also have uterus cancer."

The gulf between Thailand's working class and its wealthy elite is one factor in a complex political crisis that has seen months of deadly opposition protests on the streets of Bangkok, culminating in a military coup on May 22.

The demonstrators wanted to wipe out the influence of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who reshaped Thailand's political landscape by wooing poor and rural voters with universal healthcare, farming subsidies and microcredit schemes.

The tycoon-turned-politician clashed with a Bangkok-based royalist establishment before he was toppled as premier by the army in 2006. History has now repeated itself with another military takeover ousting a Thaksin-allied government.

Experts say Thailand has made some progress in reducing the rich-poor gap based on the Gini coefficient, a commonly used measure of income inequality that places the kingdom behind regional neighbors Cambodia and Indonesia but ahead of Malaysia and the Philippines.

The figure fell below 0.36 in 2013, down from about 0.42 a decade earlier, according to data from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).

Zero represents perfect equality and 1 total inequality.

"Even though it has shrunk, the rich-poor gap is still considered quite wide," said Somchai Jitsuchon, research director for inclusive development at the TDRI.

"Our social and political systems have given more opportunities to people in the establishment such as the rich and big business people," he said.

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