Talking About Salt and Brooms

July 16, 2001

Out of all the vendors that peddle through my street, the broom seller is my favourite. I like the way his cart looks. It took me over two weeks to catch up with him, and when I did he happened to be standing next to a salt vendor. I decided to chat to both of them. To my surprise I discovered uncanny parallels between these two men and the woman named Katin I interviewed for an earlier article entitled “Baskets and a Hubcap.” (see back issues: April 30, 2001)

All three of them come from Isaan (the northeast), Thailand’s poorest region, and work as vendors in Bangkok part-time for ridiculously low wages. Like Katin, both men have a boss that pays for the housing, electricity, and transportation to and from work.

Posuk is 27 years old and sells salt. One and a half kilogrammes of salt sells for 8 baht (17 cents) and Posuk keeps 2.50 baht (5 cents) for himself. He stated, “At 3 a.m. many people go to pick up the salt at the factory. Everyday I walk with my salt. I finish160701k1.jpg at 2 p.m. I live in a three-room house with twelve other salt vendors and my wife and baby.” At 2:30 p.m. Posuk had made 140 baht (3.11 US dollars) for the day.

Boonlan is 50 years old. He sells brooms, toilet scrubbers, mops, and feather dusters. He keeps 50 percent of his total sales as profit. He works from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. seven days a week. He told me, “I peddle my cart for about four hours a day. On a good day I can make 400 baht (8.88 US dollars).” He lives in a large one-room apartment with 14 other vendors.

When asked if they liked their jobs Posuk said, “It is a good job for me. I can go different places. I don’t want a new job.” Boonlan stated, “No, this job is no good for me. I keep looking for a new job, but I cannot find one. But I have a happy heart.”

Both men are married. Posuk’s wife also sells salt. They have one three-year-old baby. Boonlan’s wife lives in Isaan with their two children (15 and 5). She does not work. Posuk works as a rice160701k2.jpg farmer in Isaan three months out of every year. Boonlan returns home to work the fields for ten days out of every month. In their free time, both men enjoy watching Thai boxing and football.

Posuk finished school at the age of nine and Boonlan at the age of six. Both say that they can read and write. Both rent land in Isaan so that they can farm rice. When asked what they would do with 5,000 baht (111 US Dollars), Posuk said, “Put it in the bank for my baby.” Boonlan stated, “Pay for my children to learn more. Pay for some good classes.”

“Why do you farm rice?” I asked. Boonlan gave me a comprehensive explanation: “I farm the rice so that I can feed my family. If I have to buy rice, it would be too expensive. Every year the farm makes about 10,000 kilogrammes of rice. Three thousand kilogrammes is given to the man who owns the land. I keep 1,000 to feed my family. The rest (6,000) we sell. You can sell rice for 4 baht (8 cents) per kilogramme, but if you buy it at the160701k3.jpg store it costs 18 baht (40 cents) per kilogramme. Thailand is not good now for rice farmers. It is hard to make money.”

Boonlan let me get on his cart and try to pedal it. Everyone was laughing as I honked the horn and tried to ride it. It was a heavy contraption, difficult to steer and only had one gear. Pedaling this for four hours a day in the heat of Bangkok? No way, I couldn’t do it.

Boonlan pedals off into the heat, and Posuk starts walking home with his pushcart. His house is not far from where we are standing. They leave me there thinking about Isaan.

Isaan gets only about two percent of the tourist flow that goes whizzing through Thailand every year. The soil is of low quality and very often farmers are the victims of drought. Isaan is the region with the lowest per capita income in all of Thailand. This causes many of the area residents to head to Bangkok in search of money. Sometimes they can strike it big, but more often than not they are left scraping by: pedaling carts, selling salt, or sitting with a pile of baskets. I headed home wondering who these magical bosses are that drop Boonlan, Posuk, and Katin off every morning. One thing is for sure: these three people and others like them are easily exploited.

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