A Cambodian migrant worker has alleged that he and dozens of fellow migrants were arrested, beaten, stripped naked and shaved bald by Thai police, who then extorted money from them just because they did not have the correct location on their working visas.
The allegation is the latest in a spate of exploitation scandals this year involving migrant workers in Thailand and came a day before the release of the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, in which the country is at threat of being downgraded.
Construction worker Lim Srun, 50, said yesterday he and 39 others had been arrested on June 14 in Songkhla province’s Hat Yai district by Thai police who demanded 3,000 baht (US$95) from each worker for their release because their work visas were for Bangkok.
“I had no money to give them up to 3,000 Thai baht, but I took 2,600 baht along with me. Now, they took it all; I have no money to buy rice to eat. How much I left, I would eat that only,” he said.
The migrants were sent by Cambodian labour firm AP TSE to work at a car wheel factory being constructed by the firm Christiani & Nielsen in January, which was withholding their passports and demanding they pay 3,900 baht per month in various fees, he added.
“I earn 300 baht per day and have to pay [2,000 baht] for my passport to AP TSE, 1,700 baht to the Thai company for the police fee and 200 baht per month for health insurance,” he said.
Lim Srun said workers owed the firm a total US$150 for the passport fees, while they were mystified as to what the monthly fee to police paid for, but suspected they would face problems if they did not pay it.
“How can I live? We come here as if to sell our labour to the firm for nearly no income at all.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said 40 other workers who had not been arrested because they had the correct location on their visas also wanted to return but were denied their passports by the firm.
“It is not the mistake of the worker, because they don’t know where they would be supplied to, so it is the mistake of the recruitment agency,” he said. “All the 80 want to come back home, but the company refused and the passport is kept by the company. So now, the workers want the passport back so they can come home, because they are scared.”
Seng Sithichey, president of AP TSE, denied those who were arrested had been sent by his firm, which he said had issued correct legal documents to all the migrant workers it recruited for the project.
“We sent them to work legally. This was caused by brokers [who were] angry with the labourers for not sending money home, so they complained to the Thai police that they are illegal laborers,” he said.
A public relations officer from Christiani & Nielsen, who declined to give his name, said he knew nothing about the case.
“Everyone ranging from the police on down to local toughs and thugs are allowed to take a piece of you with impunity, and this is a problem the Thai government fundamentally refuses to recognise,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the fundamental problem is Thai police systematically abuse the rights of migrant workers. They treat them as less than human, and I don’t know why the Cambodian government puts up with it.”
You Ay, Cambodian Ambassador to Thailand, said she did not yet have clear information about the arrests, because she had just received the information yesterday.
“The company denied to us that it sent workers to Hat Yai. I am searching for more information from the workers myself,” she said.
Thailand was downgraded to the Tier 2 watch list in the US State Department’s 2010 TIP report, and has teetered there above the bottom ranking of Tier 3 since.
Robertson said in a report two years ago that HRW had made 30 recommendations on curbing trafficking and labour exploitation to the Thai government, which had “implemented exactly none of them”.
“It will be very interesting to see if the US State Department is going to throw the book at them,” he said.