Guest Column

Do Not Punish Migrant Workers, Fix a Broken System

By Sanitsuda Ekachai 6 July 2017

What does it take to effectively regulate migrant labor? A tougher law? Thailand’s Labor Ministry believes so. So does the military government. Hence the draconian decree on migrant labor management — and the subsequent red faces all around.

Effective June 23, the harsh punishment triggered panic among migrant workers and their employers, leading to mass layoffs and an exodus of workers across the borders back to Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

Now it’s the government’s turn to panic. Hence the promise from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to evoke Section 44 which gives him absolute power as a military leader to suspend the decree for 180 days.

This is policy embarrassment big time.

That the Labor Ministry and the country’s top leadership failed to foresee how this big-stick policy would wreak havoc on the economy shows their top-down, ivory tower mentality – and their deep prejudices against migrant workers.

That the cabinet gave the decree the green light one day, then suspended it the next, does not give us much confidence in how the military government runs our country, does it?

Under the decree, employers will face a hefty fine of 400,000 to 800,000 baht (US$11,700 to 23,500) for each undocumented migrant worker they hire. Even if their workers have work permits, the employers will still be fined 400,000 baht per worker if the job is not the same as registered in the permits.

The decree hits small businesses hard. For them, it means bankruptcy.

As for migrant workers, the undocumented are subject to a maximum five-year jail term and/or a fine of anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000 baht. If they are registered but not working in the job they are registered for, they are subject to a maximum 100,000 baht fine.

Meanwhile, the new decree does not make registration any easier. The employer must pay an exorbitant fee of 20,000 baht for a license. The migrant workers must also pay 20,000 baht for a work permit, and another 20,000 baht to extend it. Can poor migrants afford it? What is the government thinking?

In normal time, decrees are reserved for urgent matters. To justify the heavy punishment, the Labor Ministry says the decree is urgently needed to protect the country’s economic security.

What? Do the labor authorities really believe Thailand will be economically secure if millions of migrant workers leave? Do we still need the labor bureaucracy which does not understand the significant contribution of migrant workers to the national economy?

We cannot deny, however, that the labor authorities’negative attitude reflects the nationwide belief that migrant workers are national security threats. Migrant workers are stereotyped as job thieves, carriers of contagious diseases, and a burden on the country to provide health care and education for their children. Worse, migrants are often seen as cold-blooded criminals.

Remember when the junta seized power in 2014? One of the first things then coup leader Gen Prayut did was crack down on illegal migrant workers because it struck a chord with his nationalistic supporters. After a migrant panic, an exodus and employers’fury, the general took a sharp U-turn, urging the migrant workers to quickly come back.

After repeating this mistake, it’s worrying that the prime minister still misses the crux of the problem – the migrant labor management system itself.

It’s why he insisted employers and migrant workers should use the 180-day grace period to legalize their status.

“No need to fear if you follow the law,” said the prime minister. “Migrant workers need to be registered. It’s not too much of a problem. If they still don’t register [before the grace period is over], I don’t know what to do but implement the new decree.”

Contrary to what the prime minister said, the registration system is plagued with problems and corruption.

For starters, the annual registration period is unreasonably short, leaving migrant workers who cannot register in time vulnerable to police extortion. The dizzying amount of red tape in the nationality verification process and the issuance of work permits forces workers to turn to brokers, which feeds corruption at all levels on both sides of the borders.

The high expenses for registration – including the tea money involved – mean workers start off in debt to their employers who pay fees for them in advance. Migrant workers also have to pay for health insurance as part of the registration system. Yet they rarely benefit from public health services because the newcomers cannot speak Thai while hospitals lack translators.

Despite their legal status, migrant workers are rarely protected from police extortion. Many employers still confiscate workers’ passports and work permits. Without legal papers, migrant workers are routinely subject to arrest and extortion. Stories of sexual harassment of female migrant workers are common.

Even if migrant workers go through the complicated system to get work permits, it’s not the end of the problem due to the oppressive labor law. Migrant workers are barred from changing jobs and employees – a gross violation of labor rights. The punishment is arrest and deportation. By increasing the punishment with heftier fines and longer jail terms, the new decree fortifies these violations even further.

Migrant workers are also restricted to labor-intensive work, which robs them of professional development and deprives the country of skilled human resources. They are also prohibited from traveling outside their work zones, a serious infringement on freedom of movement.

With little benefits from their legal status, the majority of migrant workers here prefer to work underground. It’s not because they are bad. It’s because our system is.

With no measures to fix the flawed registration and oppressive law, the 180-day grace period is of little help in encouraging migrant workers to join the system. And if Gen Prayut lifts the freeze on the decree as promised, the problem of extortion and corruption will worsen.

How do we effectively regulate migrant labor then? Easy. Make the registration easy. Make access to welfare and health benefits easy. Then extortion and corruption will be difficult.

Start an open, year-round registration system. Get rid of the red tape so workers and employers do not have to pay money under the table. Fix the law to open the job market for migrant workers. And get tough, really tough, on corrupt officials.

Accord migrant workers human dignity and lawful rights. See them as they are – contributors to our economy. Give their children an education so they be can be part of society, ready to chip in when the country gets old and needs a young workforce.

Respecting migrants’rights is good for the economy. Unless policy makers understand this, harsh laws based on control and punishment are only good for the business of corruption. Or is it just meant to be that way?