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THAILAND: Migrant Worker Law Hits Hurdle as 500,000 ‘Disappear’

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 8 2010 (IPS) - Thailand’s labour ministry is on the hunt for half a million migrant workers from neighbouring Burma who have gone underground rather than join a new foreign workers’ programme, one that some critics have described as a “confusing” initiative.

Labour ministry officials are now toying with extending the deadline, which ran out on Mar. 2, to lure the over 500,000 migrant workers from military- ruled Burma to renew their work permits and sign on to the nationality verification process.

Only 850,000 of the eligible 1.3 million migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Burma, also known as Myanmar, had entered the verification process by the Mar. 2 deadline.

The process aims to regulate the large number of migrant workers found in a range of low- paying “dirty, difficult and dangerous” jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, construction and domestic sectors across this South-east Asian kingdom.

The ministry had initially threatened migrant workers with deportation if they failed to come on board the nationality verification process, which requires migrants to pay registration and medical fees of 3,800 baht (116 U.S. dollars) and have their legal status verified over a two-year period.

“We will not be lenient,” the employment department’s deputy director- general Supat Gukun warned migrant workers on the eve of the deadline, according to ‘The Nation’, an English-language daily. “We will have to arrest and deport those alien workers who have not kept in line with prescribed procedures.”

But the failure of such a warning hardly surprises migrant rights activists. Part of the problem, they say, stems from the lack of publicity about the details of the nationality verification process that has reached migrant workers.

“Until today there has not been a publicity campaign in the local languages of the migrant workers explaining this new policy,” Andy Hall, director of the Bangkok-based Migrant Justice Programme at the Human Rights and Development Foundation, told IPS. “The only campaign launched targeted the employers. They were given a large manual with the new rules.”

Bangkok’s insensitivity to the political culture in military-ruled Burma has also contributed to the hurdles in getting the nationality verification process on track.

“There was a lot of confusion among the Burmese migrant community and this shows in the large number of workers who did not sign the nationality verification process,” said Htoo Chit, director of the advocacy group Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development. “Some do not want to register because of the problems it would create.”

Many who abstained from meeting the verification deadline come from ethnic minorities in Burma who “have fled conflict and don’t have identity cards in Burma,” he revealed during a telephone interview from Phang Nga, in southern Thailand, where his migrants’ rights group is based. “They were internally displaced people who have no places to call home and they fear having to seek approval from Burmese authorities to work in Thailand.”

Migrant workers from Burma range from the majority Burman community to the minorities from the Shan, Mon, Karen and Arakan communities, most of who come from the military-ruled nation’s border areas where separatist conflicts have been raging for decades.

Under the nationality verification process, migrant workers on the rolls of the Thai labour ministry are expected to return to their respective countries and get themselves registered at home, including through an interview with their local officials. When they return to Thailand, they are required to come armed with passports instead of slipping into the country through the porous Thai-Burma border as undocumented migrants.

Currently, some 1.07 million workers, or about 82 percent of the previously 1.3 million registered migrants, come from Burma. The Cambodian migrant workforce accounts for 124,902 and the Lao nationals make up 11,039.

Yet that is not all. Migrant rights groups estimate that a further million workers from Burma are undocumented workers in Thailand.

And neither groups – documented nor undocumented – are spared from large-scale abuse during their time here, the global rights lobby Human Rights Watch revealed in a recent report. “Both documented and undocumented migrants are vulnerable to arbitrary acts of violence, intimidation, and extortion from state authorities, including police, military and immigration officers as well as private individuals,” the 119-page report disclosed.

“These abuses include killings, beatings, sexual harassment and rape, forced labour, abductions and other forms of arbitrary detention, death threats and other forms of intimidation,” added the report ‘From the Tiger to the Crocodile’, published in February. “Thai police often fail to actively investigate ordinary crimes as well as human rights violations by the authorities against migrants.”

Such abuse comes on top of the kind of work most migrants, who fled Burma because of violence or the country’s collapsing economy, are hired to do. “The conditions Burmese migrants workers are employed in are dirty and dangerous and ones that Thais don’t want,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, told IPS. “This makes them more vulnerable and they are not in a position to file grievances.”

The labour ministry’s nationality verification process has even raised questions about the cost that the Thai economy will have to shoulder if these migrant workers, whose cheap labour has enabled many Thai economic sectors to remain competitive in the region, are deported.

Studies estimate that these workers account for six percent of Thailand’s labour force and contribute over six percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. In 2005, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), these poorly paid workers’ contribution to the Thai economy was 1.8 billion U.S. dollars.

This stems from migrants’ work that ranges from peeling shrimp in the fisheries sector, harvesting fruits in the agriculture sector and stitching clothes in the garment sector, to working on construction sites and as domestic workers in Thai homes.

“About 15 percent (of migrant workers) are employed in fishing and fish processing, compared with less than two percent of Thais, and 14 percent are employed in construction, compared to six percent of Thais,” revealed an ILO study. “Over half of the domestic workers in Thailand are believed to be migrants.”

Thai employers have been the main beneficiaries of cheap migrant labour that has been pouring in since the early 1990s. Laws to control the flow of migrant labour were introduced in 1992 and further tightened in 2006, when Thailand announced plans for formal agreements with its three labour- supplying neighbours, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

“Thai employers have had the best deal from this cheap flow of migrant labour, whose contribution to the Thai economy is not acknowledged,” said Jackie Pollock, director of the Migrant Assistance Programme Foundation, based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “Without migrant workers, they wouldn’t be able to function. Their industries would collapse.”

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