Desperate behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by the government in Naypidaw to resolve the continuing migrant labour mess with Thailand “highlights the truly critical issue of the lack of employment opportunities in Burma,” a noted economist said.
Four-year work visas held by up to 100,000 Burmese migrant workers in Thailand have expired or are close to ending, and the Bangkok government has sent confused signals about the workers’ fate. Tens of thousands more visas will expire during 2014.
The visas were issued in administratively confused circumstances in 2009 and 2010, and Thai Ministry of Labour officials in Bangkok contacted by The Irrawaddy this week were unable to say exactly how many migrant workers were involved.
At present, Thai rules stipulate that workers whose visas expire must return to Burma and they cannot return to Thailand for three years, the Thailand-based Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) said.
The number of people facing the four-year visa expiry deadline is growing, the Democratic Voice of Burma website quoted Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, labour attaché at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, as saying. “There will be nearly 100,000 workers whose visas will expire at the end of this year,” Kyaw Kyaw Lwin said.
Some Burmese workers whose visas have expired are choosing to remain in Thailand illegally. Others are being duped into paying money to Thai and Burmese middlemen and agencies claiming to offer them visa extensions, alleged MWRN.
It’s not hard to see why they want to stay in Thailand.
Despite all the international media talk of Burma becoming Asia’s ‘last economic frontier’ fuelled by an investment and growth boom, job opportunities “are insufficient for the present working-age population, even before contemplating the issue of the returnees,” economist and a co-editor of Burma Economic Watch Sean Turnell told The Irrawaddy.
If Burma’s economy was making more progress in overall growth, rather than primarily in consumer and service areas such as telecommunications, vehicles and tourism, the country would be welcoming the migrant workers home, he said.
“Given their acquired skills and the like, the returnees could present a significant upside for Burma since precisely the same industries in which they have been working in Thailand will be critical for Burma’s economic future,” Turnell said.
But as things stand, returning migrants are likely to be unemployed or reduced to scratching a living on farms.
Diplomats privately think that Thailand will eventually reach a compromise which does not force tens of thousands of Burmese workers back home, for long periods anyway — if only because Thailand is desperately short of manual, unskilled labour.
Despite there being an estimated three million foreign workers in Thailand, many of them illegal and most of them Burmese, the strong Thai economy still faces a labour shortage.
Only in July it was reported in Bangkok that the Thai Ministry of Labour was looking into the possibility of bringing in up to 50,000 Bangladeshis to keep Thailand’s fishing industry afloat.
Even desperate-for-work illegal Burmese are increasingly shying away from Thailand’s fishing sector — which supplies a huge, global tinned fish market — because of appalling working conditions.
Migrant workers employed in seafood processing factories in Thailand are subject to exploitative subcontractors often used by the factory owners as go-betweens in dealings with non-Thai employees, human rights groups have said.
Some large Thai companies that currently employ Burmese in Thailand are planning to establish factories and other businesses in Burma — a move which some observers think is aimed at both cutting costs and coping with the worsening labour shortage in Thailand.
The Thai government this year increased the minimum national daily wage in Thailand to the equivalent of about US$10, although many illegal Burmese working there are still paid less.
The MWRN told The Irrawaddy earlier this week that the Thai government was about to change its rules to reduce the length of time a migrant worker must return home after his or her visa has expired.
The rights group quoted Thailand’s Department of Employment as saying that the stay-away period could be reduced to just one month from three years. However, at the time of writing this had not been officially confirmed.
And it remains to be seen how it would be administered.
If large numbers of Burmese are forced home, Thailand will be inconvenienced as much as Burma, said Turnell.
“Possibly it is Thailand that will be the real loser here, since [Burmese] workers play a critical role in the competitiveness of Thailand’s export sector, especially with respect to agricultural commodities,” said Turnell, who works at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
“If Burma can get the broad settings right, [a mass labour return] could be a real boost. Will it get policy, infrastructure right? Will it lift education sufficiently that Burma’s workers start to become equipped for the demands of a modern economy?” he said.