Stories from Below: Organic Leaders and Dilemmas of Grassroots Organizing in Thailand

Researchers have increasingly recognized the potential of self-organizing activities among gig workers such as couriers and food delivery riders. Nevertheless, it is still rare to find stories from below that show personal determination, leadership, and, most importantly, how workers collectively take issues into their own hands. 

In October 2022, representatives from several grassroots rider groups in Thailand were interviewed by The Just Economy and Labour Institute (JELI) and Asian Labour Review (ALR), discussing their motivations, organizing activities, and challenges.

The feature highlights the stories of three organic leaders, whose narratives reveal tensions between traditional ideas about being workers and the desire for dignity and autonomy. By organic leaders, we mean ordinary workers whose leadership emerges from grassroots organizing without a formal structure. Although primarily volunteers, these activists have gained trust through their leading roles in the collectives.

Importantly, their stories shed light on the discrepancy between the reality of grassroots organizing for daily struggles and the desired goal of building power for structural change.


Grab in Thailand


Grab began operating in Thailand in October 2013, initially as a ride-hailing service that enlisted taxis and private cars onto its platform. Dubbing itself a “lifestyle super app,” Grab has since expanded its offerings to include a wide range of services, from messenger and food delivery couriers to cleaning maids, extending its reach into every aspect of people’s lives.

While ride-hailing remains the most profitable service, Grab Food, with its army of green-jacket riders, has become an iconic service in Thailand, covering at least 58 of the country’s 78 provinces as of January 2023. For nearly a decade, Grab operated without legal status, leaving riders to navigate regulatory loopholes on their own. In September 2022, the Ministry of Transport finally granted Grab legal recognition as an app-based ride-hailing service provider.

While the legal recognition of Grab as a service provider put an end to the company’s shadowy past, it only addresses Grab’s status and fails to clarify its relationship with individual riders. As a result, individual riders are still required to register their motorbikes for public use and obtain the same license as traditional motorcycle taxis. It is worth noting that this arrangement only applies to ride-hailing or passenger services, leaving food delivery riders unregulated.


Jeab: a female rider with instinctive leadership and internal strength


Jeab (pseudonym) is a well-built woman in her late forties. Despite her strong appearance, she has struggled to find employment due to ageism and her responsibilities as a single mother of four. While she used to work as a regular employee, she disliked being under someone’s control and found it challenging to balance her household duties with a full-time job. As a result, she now earns her income primarily through delivering food for Grab.

After experiencing a few road accidents while delivering for Grab, Jeab witnessed first-hand the abnormality of riders having to pay for medical bills and recover on their own, with the platform shirking responsibility. To help riders facing the same situations, Jeab started a mutual aid group in one neighborhood in Bangkok geared toward issues of accidents and injuries.

It was started simply as a chat room (on the LINE messenger application) with 7 or 8 riders working in the same area. The size of the group subsequently grew along with the sense of camaraderie that deepened as more riders joined the chat. Finally, Jeab switched from a small chat room to LINE Openchat and Facebook group capable of hosting hundreds of riders.

One of the initiatives was a mutual aid fund where members chip in a small amount of money, usually 20 Thai baht (around 60 cents in USD) that could be used to aid those in need. At the time of our conversation, the mutual aid group listed over 800 members. Jeab said that, although she is officially head of the group, there is a committee of 20 members who meet monthly to make decisions, especially about how to spend the funds coming from members’ contributions.

While the group prioritizes injuries and accidents as the core issues, the fund can also be used to support riders with other less visible work-related health problems. For example, not unlike working at a desk, most riders have to sit in the same position on the motorbike for several hours per day, causing many to develop lower back pain. As a result, Jeab herself and several of her colleagues underwent surgeries for pain. 

Currently, the group offers ten rapid response teams to provide emergency support for riders who face accidents. They have even bought and stocked motorbike spare parts, offered basic repairs free of charge for members and non-members, and provided first aid training for riders and passengers.

Jeab, when asked about the size and strength of the group, mentioned that it was still small and primarily focused on the rapid response to emergencies and accidents. She explained that the group was not yet ready to make demands of the platform company, as their negotiating power is limited and such demands would likely be ignored. Therefore, they have prioritized mutual aid and trust building, which are indispensable and foundational for movement-building.

The first such groups of Grab riders in Bangkok facilitated information exchange, fundraising for members, and occasional social events. These groups connect with each other primarily through social media platforms, particularly Facebook pages. As the platform economy expanded its reach into small towns and major platforms competed to gain a wider market share, similar groups emerged across the country

In the past, the group joined a protest held by Fast Moving, a pan-Bangkok group discussed further below. The company promised to address workers’ demands, including the cancellation of “batch orders” (multiple orders bundled together for one drop) and of riders’ requirement to reserve the shift in advance. However, nothing came out of it.

According to Jeab, the major obstacles to achieving what they wanted were not only the company but also the riders’ lack of participation. She criticized some riders who chose not to be part of the actions for failing to think about the long term. Contemplating how the riders’ movement could become more powerful, she replied that strikes would not be effective unless enough riders join.

Jeab is an instinctive organizer and natural leader. Notably, her strength extends beyond the tight-knit community of riders she created, as her story underscores the significance of family support in labor activism. She confides in her family about work-related problems and explains why she must stand up for her rights. This kind of open communication helps her family understand her struggles and offers internal support for her fight. When asked about the challenge of being a single mom, she acknowledged that having a partner or husband would have made it easier for her to achieve what she did.


Ood: a male leader who embodies both compassion and contradictions 


He started as a Grab recruitment agent but later became a rider and got involved in self-organized activities after witnessing a brutal incident in which a traditional driver violently stabbed a rider. This incident occurred almost a decade ago, and at that time, small self-organized groups emerged to protect themselves.

However, in 2019, a female rider was killed in an accident, and her family did not receive any compensation from the platform. This incident deeply affected Ood, and the very next morning, he went to a police station because a group of riders had been assaulted. It was then that he decided to donate his entire salary to the riders and encouraged them to use the money to get organized.

This is how Fast Moving was born, and within days, the group was able to recruit over 10,000 members on their Facebook page. With 20,000 followers on their Facebook page and 2,000 active members, the collective, the Fast Moving, is one of Bangkok’s largest and most militant grassroots groups. It was primarily responsible for the recent protest in front of Grab’s headquarters in late November 2022.

Fast Moving (FM) is a group that provides its members with vehicle repair and legal support in case of accidents. They have an executive committee consisting of 17 active members who offer support in different areas across Bangkok. Over the years, FM has witnessed an increasing number of fatal road accidents, prompting them to demand the extension of call center service to fully support riders from Grab. As a result of their efforts, Grab has extended its closing time by three hours, from 8 to 11 pm.

However, there have been many cases of riders dying on the road, and the company often denies responsibility, claiming that the riders were not working or delivering orders. Therefore, FM continues to put pressure on Grab to consider riders actively performing services at all times when they have the application open. Additionally, FM is requesting that Grab provide its riders with compulsory accident insurance without any performance-based conditions. However, in practice, Grab often requires its riders to use their own personal accident insurance tied to their motorcycle registration when accidents occur.

For a while, Ood provided advice to FM, drawing on his experience as a Grab recruitment agent to help riders obtain their benefits. However, he eventually resigned because he felt uneasy about accepting paychecks from the platform while witnessing his colleagues getting injured and dying while working for the same company. He revealed that, even though he is now earning less, he is more content. He can now advocate for riders’ rights openly without having to conceal his identity.

Another pivotal moment was when he attended a meeting with other group leaders to discuss how they could support riders in obtaining social protection. This private gathering, hosted by JELI, brought together various rider groups in Bangkok who had previously been advocating for similar issues but were not in contact with one another. As a result of the meeting, Ood became more resolute in his efforts to advocate for riders’ legal protection. Subsequently, FM organized a series of protests that received widespread media coverage, including the largest-ever riders’ demonstration in front of Grab’s Bangkok headquarters.

Ood regards FM as a formidable group that has progressed from making noise to being able to negotiate with the platform in recent years. His objective is to establish an all-encompassing association for all riders, and he no longer shies away from the term “union. It’s important to note that due to its militancy, the FM protests put pressure on Grab to invite its leaders to negotiate, although this invitation was mainly a tactic by Grab to create division among the riders.

When asked about workers’ misclassification, Ood informed us that his internal survey revealed that most riders were wary of being classified as formal employees. For many riders, being an employee implies having to deal with an authoritarian boss. It is worth noting that in the Thai context, not unlike other countries in the region, where labor law enforcement is ineffective and labor standards are subpar, formal workers are accustomed to abusive and exploitative employment relationships. Understandably, most riders avoid situations where they find themselves being taken advantage of. Therefore, the issue of misclassification is rarely discussed among the rider groups.


Namwhan: a natural strategist and vocal advocate of women’s issues


Namwhan (pseudonym) is a female rider who is at the forefront of Grab protests. In her early 30s, she is outgoing and articulate and is recognized as a natural strategist and a vocal advocate for women’s issues, particularly sexual harassment. Over the past few years, she has participated in leadership development training with JELI, which has helped her become a more effective advocate.

Namwhan is also a rider-activist with the FM collective but is one of its few women leaders. Namwhan has played a prominent role in the group’s activism and is highly respected among its members.

We began by asking Namwhan about her experience as a female rider and the daily health issues she faces. Namwhan shared that she had previously undergone a C-section, which resulted in recurring back pain. Additionally, she mentioned that riding for long hours during her period can be uncomfortable. For female riders like her, finding clean public restrooms is a challenge, which is often overlooked by male riders. Namwhan herself once contracted an infection after using an unclean toilet and had to visit a doctor, who unfortunately made a judgmental comment suggesting she may have an STD.

Namwhan began driving for the ride-hailing platform Grab during the mid-2010s, a period of high incomes for drivers. However, when Grab reduced delivery fees, riders like Namwhan were forced to work long hours without social protection. This motivated her to speak up and demand better working conditions for herself and her peers. She fought not only against the company but also against the government, which ignored workers’ concerns. Women’s issues, road safety, and lack of social protection are the main struggles that she voices with the FM.

Namwhan believes that the key to negotiating with Grab is to make noise and get attention. One effective way to achieve this is through a strike, but it requires a critical mass of people to turn off their applications simultaneously. If the group is too small, they will not be able to match the power of the platform.

According to her, the company retaliated during the strikes by increasing incentives to undercut and circumvent the strike. Unfortunately, the platform failed to negotiate in good faith and instead used the “divide and conquer” tactic by persuading leaders to have private meetings, creating rifts among the riders. This tactic has been used by employers for generations. Consequently, riders started to question if their representatives accepted any benefits from the platform executives. Namwhan was aware that her peer had leaked the letter of demands to the company beforehand, which further eroded the riders’ negotiating power.

Namwhan believed that the eagerness of the riders to speak with the platform executives was a result of activism fueled by the male leaders’ egos and a lack of trust and democratic decision-making. Jeab’s concerns regarding workers accepting concessions or being unwilling to participate highlighted the tension between leaders and the members in this context of lack of democracy. Regardless, the group has a long way to go, and the key question is how the self-organizing riders can overcome internal and external challenges to transform their potential power into actual power


Precarity Is Not A Barrier to Organizing


The stories of how riders in Thailand have organized echo emerging lessons from around the world: that precarious workers are capable of taking collective action, often more easily than formal workers. In a sense, the lack of legal recognition enables them to circumvent legal barriers and take action when necessary. In short, precarious work conditions should not be seen as a barrier to organizing.

Despite the lack of support from trade unions, riders in Thailand have proven their ability to organize themselves and build solidarity. They are still able to come together and build collective power. Driven by necessity, they have taken the initial steps towards building a solid community by uniting together. Nevertheless, significant challenges lie ahead for them, particularly the development of an organizational structure to effectively plan, strategize, and achieve their goals.



Kriangsak Teerakowitkajorn is the founder and director of Just Economy and Labor Institute (JELI), a labor justice organization where he has led a series of action research on platform workers since 2017. Trained by the US-based Training for Change and Cornell ILR/AFL-CIO on facilitation and strategic corporate research, respectively, Kriangsak works extensively with labor movements in Thailand. He holds a Ph.D. in Labour Geographies from Syracuse University, Masculinized Labor Activism and Geographies of Household Reproduction in Thailand’s ‘Detroit’ (2019), and his recent projects include Centering the Agency of Women Workers in Thailand's Platform-based Care Economy (2022).