Thailand’s new government should build on progress over migrant’s rights

Photo Credit: Solidarity Center/Flickr

Thailand has made progress on migrant’s rights in recent years. With the formation of a new government around the corner, leaders should build upon the momentum.

By Zachary Frye  

Migrant workers in Thailand are pivotal to the country’s economic development. According to the United Nations, approximately 4.9 million migrant workers are in Thailand, making up more than 10% of the country’s workforce.

An estimated 4.3% to 6.6% of Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) can be directly attributed to their work. Most migrants come from relatively poorer countries in the region, especially Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos.

Source: UN Thailand Migration Report

A series of scathing reports in 2014-2015 highlighted the everyday struggle for many migrants in the country. Allegations of abuse in the fishing sector were prominent. Instances of trafficking, debt bondage, withholding of wages and even murder were also reported. The cases put pressure on the government to review its policies.

Diplomatic warnings from US and EU watchdog organisations urged Bangkok to shore up protections for these vulnerable populations.

Not everyone is satisfied

In the years that followed, the military-led government (NCPO) made it a priority to clean up its migrant work policies.

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Reuben Lim, a Communications and Media Officer with Thailand’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), noted that, “Thailand has achieved considerable progress in migration management, expanding access to public services and ratification of relevant international standards.”

Sourec: OECD Development Centre

He went on to note: “the Royal Thai Government has sought to encourage regular employment of migrant workers [through] bilateral Memorandum of Understanding” agreements with neighbouring countries, but emphasized that, “challenges remain…[due to] many migrants’ preference to work in Thailand irregularly due to costly, time-consuming, and complex procedures.”

A preference among some migrants to forgo these formal procedures increases the likelihood of experiencing abuse by traffickers or employers. Without official documentation to attest to the person’s whereabouts or circumstances, they are vulnerable to exploitation.   

Specific reforms by the government included a prohibition on withholding identification documents, stipulations on overtime pay, and the establishment of Migrant Worker Assistance Centres.

Thailand ratified the 2014 Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention that calls on signatories to strengthen commitments toward the elimination of exploitative work. Amendments to the Labour Protection Act added forced labour as a crime under its anti-trafficking law and increased jail times and fines to four years and $12,500, respectively.

The amendment of 138 fisheries regulations to align with international laws and standards – including the installation of Vessel Monitoring Systems – were also welcome changes.

In response, the U.S. promoted Thailand from a watch list to Tier 2 in its annual Trafficking in Persons report and the EU lifted its ‘yellow card’ warning designation for the Thai fishing industry.

But migrants are still struggling. Continued reports of debt bondage and weak oversight suggest more work is necessary.

Consider Ma Oo, a Burmese national who found work in a Bangkok factory after the reforms. Recruiters in Myanmar saddled him with US$400 worth of fees after landing the job. For a migrant worker from one of the poorest countries in Asia, this is a huge sum. “They took advantage of us,” he concluded.

And despite minimum wage laws that guarantee workers at least 9,000 baht per month ($283 USD), a survey conducted by the International Labour Organization found that 34% of respondents working in the fisheries sector received less than the legal amount.

Further steps are necessary. The formalization of migrant unions and improved regulatory capacity are required first steps. A focus on abuses in less prominent sectors, including domestic work, will also be paramount to combating migrant exploitation.

Streamlining immigration procedures would also bring more migrants into the legal workforce, significantly enhancing governmental oversight abilities and reducing the opportunity for exploitation.

It will be up to Thailand’s elected leaders to build upon previous successes

Although the Election Commission announced the remaining 150 party list seats for the lower house on May 8, 2019, a governing coalition remains elusive. Considerable behind-the-scenes manoeuvring will determine the makeup of the coalition that emerges.

Regardless of who gains power, there is a clear base to build upon regarding migrant’s rights. While previous reforms and attention to the issue are encouraging, reduced international pressure could lead to backsliding – especially during a time of contentious transition.

Mr Lim emphasized that “with an ageing population, low unemployment rate [sic] and continuing economic growth, the high demand for migrant workers is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”

As the current chair of ASEAN, Thailand has an obligation to the region’s workers to take a lead on the issue. The new government should commit itself to furthering recent progress and keep apace the reforms that directly impact the lives of so many people within its borders.