Life gets harder for Thailand’s guest-workers
Feb 25th 2010 | BANGKOK | From The Economist print edition
THEY sew bras, peel shrimps, build blocks of flats and haul fishing-nets. In return, migrant workers in Thailand are paid poorly, if at all, and face exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers and the security forces. Up to 3m migrants, many undocumented and mostly from Myanmar, fall into this category. So a scheme to start registering this workforce and bring it into the legal fold sounds like a step forward. Migrants have been ordered to apply to their home countries for special passports so that they can work legally in Thailand and, in theory, enjoy access to public services, such as health care.
But the plan has run into practical and political difficulties, mostly among workers from Myanmar, who rightly fear their awful government and do not want to return home, even temporarily. Many are unaware of the registration drive. So the first applicants have come mostly from migrants from Laos and Cambodia, where the authorities are more willing to help.
The Thai government says 400,000 Myanmar nationals have so far joined the process. Under pressure, the Thai government has reportedly modified its original deadline of February 28th for filing papers. Now that is the deadline only for migrants to fill in a form agreeing to go through the “nationality verification” process. They have until the end of March to submit forms to their home government.
But Thailand has not lifted its threat to arrest and deport migrants who do not comply by the new deadline. The government apparently believes that unregistered foreigners are a security threat. This raises the spectre of mass expulsions on a scale not seen since the 1990s. Jorge Bustamante, a United Nations official in Geneva dealing with migrant rights, has said that this would breach Thailand’s human-rights obligations, since workers might also be asylum-seekers.
This argument is unlikely to sway a government that shows increasing contempt for refugees. In December it expelled more than 4,000 Hmong to Laos, including 158 refugees recognised as such by the UN. Most were packed off to a remote camp. A Thai-government spokesman has claimed that the 158 refugees were happy to be in Laos. Foreign diplomats in Bangkok, still fuming over the expulsion, doubt it.
Kicking out millions of migrants who do dirty, low-paid jobs would be unpopular with Thai companies. Too few locals are willing to take their place. Garment factories in Thai-Myanmar border towns such as Mae Sot would probably go bankrupt if they had to offer decent wages and benefits. Fisheries and plantations also depend on imported labour. The government, however, believes that deported workers would soon be replaced by others eager to escape misery in Myanmar.
Not all foreign workers are under the radar; over 1.3m migrants registered in 2009 for work permits under the old system. These are the workers whose nationality Thailand wants to verify first, before tackling the rest. But being a legal migrant in Thailand confers few benefits. Workers are still at the mercy of employers who can cheat them of their wages and dismiss them summarily. Complaining can be futile or worse. Workers face extortion, rape and even murder by the very officials supposed to be protecting them, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a watchdog that this week released a report on the abuses suffered by migrants. It noted that officials treat them like “walking ATMs”.
There is little reason to believe that holding a special passport would protect migrants from rapacious cops and stingy employers, says HRW’s Phil Robertson. Migrants will still be unable to travel freely or organise into unions. In some provinces it is illegal for them to use mobile phones. Labour-inspectors pay little heed.
Employers have the upper hand and can keep down labour costs, but at a price to Thailand’s competitiveness. Surveys of Thai workers show a steady decline in their productivity, says Pracha Vasuprasat, an expert on migration at the International Labour Organisation. An abundance of poorly paid migrants means less incentive to upgrade to a more skilled workforce. Thailand’s is not the only Asian economy hooked on cheap labour. Neighbouring Malaysia also depends on millions of guest-workers. So much so that its home minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, has suggested that, to lessen the dependence, political refugees be allowed to work.