CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A Thai-based rights group has marked International Migrants Day on Friday by calling on the governments of Thailand and its regional neighbors to guarantee better conditions for the estimated four million migrant workers in the country.
An estimated three million migrant workers in Thailand are Burmese nationals, according to the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), which was founded in 2009 by Burmese expatriates seeking to improve working conditions in Thailand’s precarious migrant labor market. The rest largely hail from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
A statement released by MWRN on Friday called on regional governments to implement more transparent policies on living and working permissions for migrants in Thailand, as well as adopting a system for safer migration routes and programs to combat human trafficking.
British labor rights activist Andy Hall, MWRN’s international affairs adviser, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that two of the biggest issues facing migrant workers in Thailand are the uncertainty of the legal framework and the unscrupulous behavior of intermediaries brokering jobs for prospective migrants.
“The main problem now is that a lack of transparent policy between Thailand and countries of origin such as Burma and Cambodia. They have no long-term policy. And there are a lot of problems with the brokers and agencies,” said Hall.
Migrants are typically permitted to work in Thailand for four to six years. According to an MWRN statement, many hundreds of thousands of migrants are facing the imminent expiry of their work permits and will choose to stay on as undocumented workers rather than pay exorbitant fees to travel to their home countries and renew their permissions.
Migrant workers in this position are often unaware of their rights and are vulnerable to exploitation or extortion by brokers, agents and local authorities, said Hall.
The MWRN has appealed to Thailand and its neighbors to implement new rules to allow in-country renewal of work permits without the need for brokers or employment agencies to mediate the process.
According to the MWRN’s Friday statement, the majority of migrant workers in the country arrived without following any formal processes arranged between their country of origin and Thailand. Workers were often compelled to pay through brokerages several times the cost of required identification documents to organize their passage abroad.
In Burma’s case, the government fixed the price of a temporary passport at 550 baht (US$15.20), with their Thai counterparts charging 500 baht ($13.85) for a two-year visa. Employment agencies and brokers usually charge between 5,000 and 9,000 baht ($139-$249) to secure the documents, which allow them to become documented workers under Thailand’s national verification process.
“As a result, these millions of Burmese migrants have over the decades faced various serious challenges such as exploitation by brokers and have also too often become victims of human trafficking due to a risky irregular status,” it said.
Rights groups estimate approximately 1.7 million migrant workers from Burma have completed the national verification process and hold a temporary passport.
Andy Hall said that the MWRN had worked to educate migrant workers about their rights and advocate for improved working conditions in the industries they dominate, but safety problems and exploitation were entrenched problems.
“There are still a lot of problems in their workplaces, for example diseases and accidents,” he said. “There are a lot of construction accidents. These are problems and the migrants don’t get compensation.”
A public march and information seminar organized by MWRN on Friday saw representatives from other rights groups and Thailand’s Ministry of Labour descend on the port town Mahachai, a port town near Bangkok home to a large community of Burmese migrants.