Thailand to Allow Foreign Day Laborers Without Passports

By Saw Yan Naing 17 September 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Thai authorities plan to put a new rule in place allowing foreign migrant laborers without passports to work in border towns of the Kingdom on a day-to-day basis, in an attempt to reduce the number of migrants who travel on to bigger cities for better paying jobs.

The Thai Labor Ministry’s new regulation will allow foreign workers to enter and work legally without passports, but only in border areas and with the stipulation that they must return to their home country at day’s end. Daily entry documents will be used in lieu of passports.

The news comes as a rare spot of good news for many Burmese who work in Thailand illegally and have seen a deterioration in their fortunes since a May coup brought several measures restricting their ability to live and work in the Kingdom.

Most of Thailand’s foreign labor force is from neighboring Burma, with the number of Burmese nationals working in the Kingdom estimated to be as high as 3 million. Migrants’ rights groups estimate that about 2 million have been registered under a “national verification program” and are legally eligible to work in Thailand, but hundreds of thousands are believed to be undocumented and stand to benefit from the opportunity to work legally under the new regulation on day laborers.

Htoo Chit, executive director of the Thailand-based migrant rights group Foundation for Education and Development, welcomed the new policy.

“It is a good system for migrant workers because it will be easier for them to come and work daily in Thai border towns,” he said. “The new law will allow them to work officially with border passes.”

Htoo Chit, however, said the new regulation would not affect registered migrant workers who have already passed national verification and obtained passports to work and travel across Thailand.

“They [Thai authorities] won’t stop issuing or extending passports for migrant workers who hold them. So I think it is a good regulation,” said Htoo Chit, adding that he was not aware of when the new plan would go into effect.

Many migrant workers travel beyond Thailand’s border towns for big cities, where they can earn more money after passing the national verification process and obtaining passports. The trend has been a source of frustration for business operators on the border, who are forced to deal with disruptive employee turnover rates as a result.

Though Thai law mandates a minimum daily wage of 300 baht (US$10) for both domestic and migrant workers, many foreign laborers on the border earn far less.

Thailand’s permanent secretary for labor, Jirasak Sukhonthachat, told the Bangkok Post newspaper that Labor Ministry authorities had approached the ruling Thai junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, for approval and the plan is now under consideration.

“The regulations would stipulate which documents could be substituted for passports, where the workers could work, suitable occupations and work timeframes for those foreign workers,” the Bangkok Post reported, citing Jirasak.

Currently, Thai law states that border passes only allow foreigners to enter Thailand to visit or trade, but not to work. Only migrant workers with passports are officially allowed to travel around the country.

The Bangkok Post reported that the new regulations must be approved by the cabinet before negotiations with neighboring countries can move forward.

The Thai junta in July approved special economic zones to be set up in a handful of border towns including Mae Sot, which borders Burma’s Karen State.

Businesses along the border are also expected to view the forthcoming regulation favorably, as it has the potential to reduce the number of migrant workers that leave their jobs in border towns for Bangkok and other urban centers.