As the world mark International Migrants Day today, regional labor rights groups are taking the opportunity to raise the ongoing plight of many migrant workers in Thailand – many of whom are from Burma – where they have few rights and are vulnerable to extortion.
With four million migrant workers in Thailand, migrants form a crucial source of cheap labour for the country’s productivity and economic growth. Millions are from Burma. And under international law, these migrant workers are entitled to protection and proper treatment from governments and related sectors of society when they migrate from origin countries to destination countries.
Yet many of these workers are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse in the workplace and a lack of job security. The situation has been hampered by both the Burma and Thai government’s inability to deliver a clear migration policy framework even though a national verification process (NV) for migrant workers has been in place for 11 years, according to labor rights groups, including the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation (SERC) and the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN).
It is estimated that of the approximately 4 million migrant workers currently in Thailand, only two million are permitted to legally work. Out of those permitted to work 700,000 migrants entered the country legally whilst 1.27 million migrants entered the country irregularly. 2-3 million more migrants entered irregularly into Thailand and have not registered at all.
Migrants still face wage and unlawful salaries, dangerous and dirty working conditions, detention in a slave-like conditions and too frequently fall victim to human trafficking, the MWRN and SERC said. Additionally, a long and complicated Nationality Verification process adds to the difficulties faced by migrants leaves them open to exploitation.
A Harsh Reality for Mae Sot’s Migrant Workers
The Thai border town of Mae Sot provides a clear example of the ongoing gaps between the rights of migrant workers and the reality for them on the round.
A key gateway between Thailand and Burma, Mae Sot is situated on a notoriously porous border. The town has an estimated 150,000-200,000 migrant workers – and despite its rapid economic growth as Burma opens up, migrants are seeing few benefits.
Though Thailand increased the minimum wage to 300 baht (US $10) a day last year, worker advocates say there is widespread and ongoing exploitation. In fact, local sources have claimed to Karen News that some are paid as little as around one-fifth of the country’s minimum wage, or around 80 baht (US $2.50) a day.
Because demand for jobs in Thailand is high, employers can keep wages low and working conditions dirty, dangerous and degrading.
A survey of nearly 800 Mae Sot residents by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Tufts University in 2012 found that, “Over the last year, one in five migrants experienced eviction, one in ten suffered physical assault, and one in six was a victim of theft. More than a third of the migrants live in unsafe or unsanitary housing.”
The report, titled ‘Surviving or Thriving on the Thai-Burma border: Vulnerability and Resilience in Mae Sot,’ noted that transient migrant workers often did jobs in the agricultural, manufacturing, construction, domestic work and fishing sectors; “jobs that are often dirty, degrading, and dangerous.”
Policy Vacuum Leaves Migrants Vulnerable
In 2002, the Burma and Thai Governments signed a bilateral agreement allowing regularisation of these workers through a National Verification (NV) process. From 15 July 2009 these workers could apply for and receive temporary Myanmar passport and Thai visas via NV. By August 2013, Myanmar statistics show that more than 1.7 million Myanmar workers received temporary passports for work in Thailand. Yet Thai statistics suggest less than 1 million are registered to work legally.
Since July 2013, migrant workers who passed the NV process in 2009 were not able to renew their visas with Thai immigration officials as the original 2002 MoU allowed workers to stay and work in Thailand for only four years prior to returning to their home country for at least three years.
Both Thailand and Burma allowed this deadline to pass without creating a new and clear policy.
The MWRN said that as a result of “government incompetence in managing migration,” exploitation and extortion seriously spread as a direct result of this policy flaw.
Migrant workers whose legal documents expired or will soon expire continue to be unaware of their future and confused whether they can continue to live and work in Thailand legally or not.
MWRN said that as a result, workers already at high risk of labour right abuses, discrimination and exploitation are beginning to suffer more.
Misleading information continues to circulate among workers that they can no longer remain; or they have to return to Burma for one month or even one day, MWRN said. “Brokers are cheating 3,500 to 5,000 baht (US$120 – 170) from workers in promise for visa extensions, mostly in the Samut Sakorn, Nonthaburi, Chonburi and Bangkok areas of Thailand. Workers are being fined 500 baht (US$16) a day and up to a maximum of 20,000 Baht (US$700) for overstaying after fours years by Thai immigration officials.”
Representatives from both the Burma and Thai governments held two meetings on 5 September 2013 and 12 October 2013 to discuss issues of concern regarding the four-year migrant worker deadline.
Brokers Prey on Migrants
In spite of the gradual rollout of the NV scheme, migrant workers are paying as much as five times what the process should legally cost due to broker charges.
Burma and Thailand agreed that migrant workers must pay 1,050 baht (US$3.3) to complete the NV process. Yet the Migrant Workers Right Network said that when broker charges and “under the table” costs are added up, each worker spent 5,500 to 12,000 baht (US$180-400) for getting a temporary passport and work permit.
With 1.7 million migrants completing the process this means brokers, agencies and officials through exploitation and corruption have already made at least 5,100 million baht (US$170 million) from the NV process. At the same time, low-income earning migrant workers have found themselves in “more debt, often leading to severe debt bondage, and seen their savings decline.” The MWRN said.
The MWRN and SERC outlined the following points as being key to ensuring that migrant worker’s rights were protected:
– Migrants should be treated equally to national workers.
– Clear policies and guidelines for a long term migrant workers administration plan should be created.
– Migrants should have freedom to change their employers
– A regulation requiring working premises for migrants to include childcare centers should be created.
– An understanding by migrants of the right to association and collective bargaining under ILO Conventions 87 and 98 should be ensured to foster migrant’s participation as members of trade unions.
– The migrant import (MoU) process should be simplified to avoid a corrupt system of brokers.