Thailand: Migrant workers face continued hardship

07 March 2013|Dana MacLean

A Burmese migrant community in Samut Sakhon province, on the outskirts of Bangkok. (Dana MacLean)

Bangkok, 7 March 2013 — Last month Thailand’s estimated two million irregular migrant workers were granted a four-month extension, until April 2013, to have their nationalities verified by their governments in order to register for Thai visas and work permits.

Although this is a welcome step for the time being, after the new deadline passes, irregular migrant workers will face the same risks of arrest and deportation as they do currently, according to  Kohnwilai Teppunkoonngam, the Migrant Outreach Officer for JRS Thailand.

JRS believes that “Society must develop a new attitude towards migrants and refugees: those in need of protection and assistance must receive it,” as outlined in the JRS Hospitality Working Paper.

Programmes in Mae Sot— where 70 percent of the population are Burmese forced migrants—  include advocacy, labour rights trainings, and opportunities for livelihoods activities.

After April, undocumented migrant workers already in Thailand may be unable to register as the deadline is unlikely to be extended again.

Instead, the government plans to recruit new workers residing in Laos PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar, under bilateral agreements signed between 2002-2003, according to Teppunkoonngam.

The nuts and bolts of NV and registration

In the past, nationality verification (NV)— which provides migrants with a temporary passport allowing for greater freedom of movement and legal rights— has been a costly exercise. Migrants paid up to 15,000 baht, or US $500, to brokers, according to local Thai news sources, when their average daily wage is less than 300 baht or US $10.

In 2011, many migrants failed to register before the initial deadline due to poor public awareness or understanding of the process and the complicated, bureaucratic nature of the procedure, which made it lengthy and confusing, according to Andy Hall, a researcher at  Mahidol University’s Migration Centre based in Nakhon Pathom province.

But two weeks ago, the Royal Thai government announced the opening of several one-stop service centres for NV scattered throughout Thailand, making NV more affordable and accessible until the April deadline.

The new registration costs will total up to 9,000 baht, the equivalent of US $290— a little more than half the previous cost, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Thailand.

“The one-stop centres may make nationality verification much easier for the migrants,” said Teppunkoonngam, who added that more permanent measures need to be put in place to allow ongoing registration.

“[While] being documented does not necessarily improve the conditions of work, it does decrease corruption and provides more opportunities to integrate,” said Jackie Pollock, the executive director of MAP Foundation, a Chiang Mai based advocacy NGO.

Migrant work undervalued

In the past two decades, Thailand has come under increasing scrutiny for policies that fail to protect irregular migrant workers from exploitation and abuse.

Despite migrant work contributing an estimated four percent to Thailand’s annual GDP, unaffordable registration costs and a lack of enforcement of labour protection standards continues to leave migrant workers vulnerable.

“Framing human beings as cheap migrant labour reduces their worth solely to economic development or worse, a source of profit,” said Fr Bambang SJ, JRS’ Asia Pacific’s Regional Director.

Roughly 300,000 are currently undergoing registration, but an estimated two million more migrants remain outside of the process, according to MAP Foundation.

“They still manage to find work in Thailand and stay,” said Pollock.

“In our accompaniment we would like to help the migrants to make their stories visible,” said Fr Bambang SJ. “It is a way of raising their concerns, and strengthening their voices,” he added.

Debt bondage increases trafficking risk

Since average wages are less than 300 baht, $10 per day, under the previous regularisation processes, migrants stashing away half their daily earnings would still have to save for at least five months before being able to afford it.

This is one of many reasons why numerous irregular migrant workers failed to register in 2011.

“These are highly inflated costs that cause debt bondage,” said Hall.

Debt bondage— borrowing from relatives, friends, brokers, and even employers— increases vulnerability to illegal exploitation and trafficking, according to Teppunkoonngam.

“Although the one-stop centres improve access to NV in the short-term, closing this door permanently, instead of leaving both doors open, may not be a long term solution,” said Teppunkoonngam, who also recommends that Thailand sign on to the 1990 UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer

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