Migrant workers in Thailand at risk of abuse amid economic slowdown

Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. Photo: Solidarity Center shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Given Thailand’s dire economic outlook wrought by COVID-19, fewer opportunities could lead to an increase in precarious and underpaid work.

By Zachary Frye                                                               

Thailand is a regional leader in attracting migrant workers, especially from Myanmar and Cambodia.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in mid-to-late 2019 there were about 2.8 million documented migrant workers in the country, 48% of them from Myanmar.

But according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), these numbers only reflect about half of the total number of migrants in the country, which could be as high as 4 or 5 million if undocumented workers are included.

Since the COVID-19 crisis, many workers have found themselves in difficult situations. The land borders between Thailand and its neighbors shut down in late March. With much of the country’s economy grinding to a halt in April and May, migrant work was severely impacted.

Some were allowed to return home, especially in the days after the border closures were announced, but others were compelled to stay in Thailand. Government estimates indicate that at least 310,000 migrant workers left the country between March and June.

The Thai government made attempts to ease the burden for documented migrants, extending free visa status for migrant workers until at least July 31, but many foreign workers face mounting debts and have seen opportunities for work disappear.

The government implemented a cash relief program, but its restrictions mean that many of the most vulnerable are left out. Foreign workers can qualify for payments, but only if they have a Thai bank account with at least six months of contributions to the government’s social security fund.

While Thailand has managed to protect itself from the worst of COVID-19, its economy has the worst projected outlook in the region. With the potential for prolonged economic hardship, migrant workers could face a disproportionate amount of pain moving forward.

The Thai and Myanmar governments should double down on efforts to support migrants’ wellbeing and livelihoods

On July 9, the Thai government reopened Department of Employment offices across the country, which serve to help migrant workers secure and maintain legal status.

According to the government, this was done in part to help over 700,000 migrant workers who still needed their work permits processed after offices closed earlier this year due to the coronavirus.

Although this could help hundreds of thousands of workers receive long-term legal status in the country, many remain in the shadows.

The Myanmar government’s labour attaché in Thailand recently introduced a survey to attempt to get accurate numbers on remaining Myanmar migrant workers in the country, assess their needs, and inform government policy moving forward.

Official developments like this show a willingness from governments to support migrant workers over the long term.

In the meantime, however, those with little work or other means of support will continue to suffer. For many migrant families in Thailand, the everyday financial and health risks brought on by COVID-19 are becoming untenable.

“I worry that if she gets sick, I won’t have money to have her treated,” said Min Zaw Aye, a migrant worker from Myanmar who lost his job and got stuck in Thailand with his young daughter.

“I never have enough money, although I try,” he added, speaking with Channel News Asia.

Migrant workers have a role to play in COVID-19 recovery

According to a recent report published by the IOM, migrant workers should not be looked at as liabilities on the road toward economic recovery, but an essential aspect of it.

Regional economies are heavily reliant on the movement of people to help maintain critical aspects of the food, agriculture and manufacturing sectors, among others.

With restrictions due to the coronavirus, however, individuals and families have suffered as well as the economy. In the coming year, Thailand is expected to face an economic contraction of some 6.5%.

In 2019, migrant workers in Thailand alone were estimated to add an additional 4.3-6.6% to GDP, representing billions of dollars in economic flows.

Without well-coordinated policies to support migrant workers, both people and markets will have a difficult time emerging stronger from the virus.

If the impacts of COVID-19 on migrant workers are left unaddressed, regional poverty reduction could also be impacted.

According to the IOM, inadequate migrant policy would “exacerbate existing high levels of inequality within and between countries, especially as remittances are expected to sharply decline, reversing progress made in the fight against poverty.”

In 2019, migrant workers in Thailand sent at least US$2.8 million back to families in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

The risk of abuse increases the longer the economy suffers

Per the IOM’s 2019 Thailand Migration Report, some migrant workers in Thailand faced a host of problems even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, including exploitation by brokers, inaccessible or limited housing and reduced or unpaid wages.

Now that work is scarce, migrants are facing the prospect of heightened abuse and precarity.

For Adisorn Keadmongkol, manager and coordinator at the Bangkok-based Migrant Working Group, COVID-19 almost certainly means that workers will be taken advantage of.

“For example, the workers will be told that everyone is in trouble, the employer is also in trouble so it’s time to help each other,” he said, referring to how wages and protections might be unfairly reduced during the pandemic.

“The workers have to accept any condition [laid down by the employers]. It’s a condition that they cannot bargain [with]. They have to do it to keep the relationship with employers to save their jobs,” he added.

In an ILO assessment conducted from April to May, 32% of polled migrant workers fortunate enough to maintain their jobs reported myriad work-related problems such as being pushed to take unpaid leave, an inability to refuse time off during the lockdown, or confiscation of legal documents, such as passports, by their employer.

For especially vulnerable groups like women and child migrants, there is an added risk of exploitation.

Official data on a possible increase in gender-based exploitation of migrants in Thailand is not yet available, but according to the ILO, previous epidemics saw increased violence against women as economic tensions and added restrictions increased the likelihood of abuse.

Just over half of documented migrant workers in Thailand were female in 2019.

With many migrant workers in Thailand struggling, the government should do what it can to bolster their safety, security and wellbeing. With the prospect of prolonged economic hardship, risks to migrant workers and their families will only increase, making it more difficult to emerge stronger from COVID-19.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.