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RIGHTS-THAILAND: Restrictions Make Life Tough For Migrant Workers

Sutthida Malikaew* - Newsmekong

BANGKOK, Aug 17 2007 (IPS) - Migrant workers do not have an easy time in Thailand, but those from the neighbouring countries of Burma, Cambodia and Laos have been facing an especially tough life following the imposition of a harsh decree on them that severely restricts their movements and rights.

The ‘Provincial Decree on Migrant Workers’ was first introduced eight months ago by the provincial government of Phuket, famed as tourist destination. Ranong, Rayong and Pang-nga provinces followed suit with similar decrees mid-2007. Other provinces with agreements to implement the restrictions include Surat Thani, Chumporn, Krabi and Chiang Mai.

“Our life is so difficult now. A few days ago at around 2 or 3 am, three men came and knocked on the doors of migrant homes. Nobody dared open their doors but these men entered forcibly and took away all the mobile phones,’’ said Min Min, 18, who works at a restaurant in southern Surat Thani province.

Min said her phone had already been confiscated a few months earlier when she was on the way to the market. The police stopped her and asked for her ID. Though a registered worker, the police seized her mobile phone and told her that she was not allowed to have it.

Under the decree, migrant workers from the three countries are not allowed to own mobile phones, may not use motorised transport and must remain confined to their dormitories from 8 pm to 6 am.

Forgotten is the fact that Thailand’s industrial sector and agricultural sector have greatly benefited from cheap labour pouring in over the borders and ready to work at a fraction of prevailing wages.

The provincial decrees affect some 200,000 workers while estimates say that there are an additional 600,000 illegal workers in Thailand from the three countries though the bulk of them are from Burma.

Provincial officials claim that the restrictions are needed for security, and the federal ministry for labour has confirmed that it is within the mandate of provincial governors to issue such restrictive orders in their territories.

According to an update on the situation released at a meeting of the Action Network for Migrants (ANM), a non-government organisation (NGO), and a network of 13 voluntary groups conducted on Aug. 2, 2007, the decree has already caused immense suffering.

It was found that the decree created room for corruption and extortion by police. In provinces such as Pang-nga, Surat Thani and Chiang Mai, confiscation of motorbikes used by workers to get to worksites such as rubber plantations is routine. Migrants need to bribe police to get their property back.

Min said the men who broke into migrants’ homes in Surat Thani and confiscated their mobile phones did not identify themselves as police or carry any search warrants and were possibly people taking advantage of the workers’ vulnerability.

In Pang-nga, Nattapul Vongwai, a community health officer from Medicines San Frontieres (MSF- Belgium) was witness to the difficulties of migrants in accessing healthcare and treatment after the decree was issued.

‘’We have a clinic to provide health care and check ups. In pregnancy cases we encourage migrant workers to go for prenatal care, check up and delivery at hospitals to avoid risks to the mother and child. But after the decree was issued, fewer patients have been coming to the clinic. They say they are afraid of getting arrested,’’ she said.

Nattapul said, last week, she met a pregnant HIV infected woman seeking AZT anti-retroviral drugs to prevent a mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS. She was to come back again later in the day to take the medication, but never came back. It turned out later that, on the way back from the clinic, she was picked up and interrogated by police and after she dared not venture out again.

“A similar case was that of a two-year-old boy who accidentally fell into a well and nearly drowned. An MSF worker at a primary care unit took him to a hospital, 35 km away, but was stopped by police on the way. Because of delays in negotiations the child’s condition worsened by the time he was reached to the hospital,’’ Nattapul said.

Mo Swe, coordinator for Young Chi Oo (a Burmese migrants’ association) added that migrants were already a disadvantaged lot and that the decree only created scope for more human rights violations.

He explained that though registered as migrants their movements were restricted to a single province. Hence, to bar them from using mobile phones meant preventing them from seeking help in times of emergency.

It is worse for domestic workers because telephone is the only communication tool they can use to contact outside, Mo Swe said. ‘’If they are abused by their employers, how can they report it or ask for help?”

Varaporn Chamsanit, a human rights specialist at Mahidol University, said it was important for authorities to realise that migrant workers are not criminals and lived and worked in Thailand legally. Also, they have basic human rights that must be protected under international conventions.

According to Varaporn the decree is not only a clear discrimination but also a violation of basic rights by state organs and was a breach of Thailand’s obligations to uphold international human rights standards. The restrctions resulted in inhuman conditions for migrant workers and made even more vulnerable to other forms of harassment and violations.

“The Thai government must not allow this measure to continue,’’ she concluded.

(*This story was written for the Imaging Our Mekong Programme coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific)

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