Thailand’s government is processing more than 770,000 illegal migrant workers who decided to register with the state in their bid to stay in the country, Employment Department director-general Waranon Pitiwan says.
Penalties under the newly-promulgated law on foreign labour employment will be suspended until the law takes effect on Jan 1 when Thailand will adopt a zero tolerance of illegal labour, he said.
More stringent measures have been taken against human trafficking gangs which take advantage of illegal employment. There is an ultimate goal to terminate officials’ years-long leniency towards unlicensed foreign workers—illegality must be zero.
“From New Year’s Day next year, Thailand wants to see all migrant workers have work permits,” Waranon told the Bangkok Post.
During his years of serving the Labour Ministry, mainly in labour protection and welfare-related positions, he has seen the illegal entry of workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. The state responded to the problem by granting many of them temporary working status as the country increasingly depends on this group of foreign workers.
It has been obvious since 1987 that demand for workers in the fishing and construction industries has been rising. Though the private sector was aware of the foreigners’ illegal stay, the large number of job vacancies prompted businesses, led by the Federation of Thai Industries, to ask the government to adopt a lenient approach to the problem, consequently leading to their status changing from illegal immigrants to licensed employees under a special condition.
They were first given permission in 1996 to work temporarily in 36 job categories in 43 provinces for one year but were able to extend their work period for another one year. Later in 1999 the number of job types migrant workers were allowed to do increased to 47.
Despite this leniency, the number of workers granted temporary work permits still fell short of expectations in 2005 and 2007.
The government decided to register illegal foreign workers again but on the condition they paid for insurance expenses. However, the requirement led to protests, prompting authorities to scrap the order.
In Waranon’s view, the soft approach to illegal foreign workers is insufficient when their problems are considered in a broader context.
Without a legal process to take them into Thailand, they will continue to encounter exploitation by job brokers and the image of the country will be at risk of being marred by transnational human trafficking.
Many migrant workers come from poor families. They hope to earn more money, especially in Bangkok and its neighboring provinces, but in many cases they were lured by some job brokers who demanded unreasonable expenses.
Worse, in some secret trips to Thailand, illegal migrant workers were told to hide in pickup trucks covered in tarpaulins.
But instead of reaching their destinations, the trucks often ended up in road accidents that killed the workers, including women and children.
Those who survived the arrest were granted jobs, but they did not earn sufficient money because large portions of their wages were deducted to settle debts they owed to Thai and foreign job brokers.
These unpleasant conditions carry on as long as employers and workers ignore legal channels of employment, and the problem will even get worse when human trafficking gangs find ways to exploit the import and export of labourers, Waranon said.
Thailand is on Tier 2 Watchlist in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which means the country has not yet fully complied with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act, though it has made efforts to do so.
A slowdown in dealing with human trade issues will put Thailand at risk of being downgraded to Tier 3, the country’s 2015 status that can lead to certain restrictions on US non-humanitarian and non-trade related foreign assistance.
“The decree [on illegal migrant workers] aims mainly at putting employers and job recruitment agencies in line with laws, barring them from hiring or importing illegal migrant workers with harsh penalties,” Waranon said.
Unlicensed labour importers will be subject to a fine of up to one million baht for each worker illegally imported and a maximum of 10-year imprisonment, or both, while employers who hire illegal foreign workers will be fined between 400,000 and 80,000 baht a worker.
Undocumented workers or those doing jobs reserved only for Thai people will also face strict punishments, including a five-year jail term.
It is possible that some employers may still want to bypass legal steps and embark on fast-track recruitment of foreign workers.
However, Waranon said, they have to think carefully whether they want to risk being arrested and pay bribes to crooked officials who will demand higher prices to match hasher punishments.
With these unnecessary expenses and the risk, it is better for employers to follow rules, he said, hiring workers screened under memorandum of understanding between Thailand and each neighbouring country.
Their businesses will benefit from the help of foreign workers who are granted, under the MoU, a two-year working period, which can be renewed for another two years, Waranon said.
“The government has never wanted to stop migrant worker employment,” Waranon stressed.
“We just want employers to follow laws that will not only be conducive to the zero tolerance of illegal employment but will lead to little or no space for human trafficking.”