Chiang Mai Migrant Worker Registration Continues, Despite Deadline

By Paul Vrieze 14 December 2012

As a controversial registration deadline for migrant workers in Thailand was set to expire Friday, reports emerged that the government was allowing a Burmese worker registration center in Chiang Mai to issue new passports to workers until the end of the year.

A labor rights advocate said the reported extension was contrary to Thai government statements, but added that any form of reprieve for migrant workers was welcome.

Aung Lay, an official at the Nationality Verification center for Burmese migrant workers in Chiang Mai, said the center’s chief officer had told staff on Friday morning that they could continue to prepare passports for migrant workers until the end of December.

“We have an extension to the end of the year,” he said. “The [Burmese] Embassy made negotiations for the extension.” Aung Lay said he heard that six Burmese registration centers in Thailand would be allowed to issue passports until the year’s end.

He said the postponement was welcome as tens of thousands of passport applications for registered and unregistered Burmese workers still needed to be completed.

“In Chiang Mai we still have 30,000 more to do. I hope we can finish them by the end of the year. We already processed 49,000 [applications],” he said, adding that about a third of all applicants were migrant workers who did not have a passport before.

Andy Hall, a migration expert at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, was surprised to hear that the Burmese registration centers could stay open longer. “That is not the official policy,” he said, before adding, “If the centers are staying open and issuing passports to migrant workers that’s good.”

Although Hall welcomed the fact that some registration centers could stay open longer, he questioned why there was a difference between official central government policy and the situation on the ground. “What we need is rule of law,” he said. “We need a clear policy that will be to the benefit of migrant workers.”

Labor rights groups and the Burmese government had repeatedly asked Thailand to extend the deadline, but it declined and said migrant workers would no be allowed to obtain their identity papers or a Thai work permit in Thailand after Dec. 14.

A report by the government-affiliated Thai news agency MCOT on Friday also stated the deadline would expire. It quoted Thai Labor Minister Padermchai Sasomsap as saying that migrant workers “who fail to have their nationality verified by today will be repatriated.”

Officially, workers who still need of official documents after Friday must go to Burma to obtain a passport and then re-enter Thailand to apply for a work permit.

This process, right advocates have warned, would expose workers to exploitation and abuse, as they have to travel to the border and pay hundreds of dollars each to obtain a passport and a Thai work permit. To be able to afford this, workers would have to take loans from their employers, forcing many into debt bondage, according to labor groups.

Of an estimated 2.5 million Burmese workers in Thailand, more than 1 million still needed to obtain passports and Thai work permits on the day of the deadline, according to labor rights groups.

In Thailand, Burmese workers are often employed as cheap laborers in the fishery, garment and construction industries, or they work as domestic servants.