BANGKOK, Aug 23 (IPS) - Thailand will continue to attract migrant workers from its
poorer neighbors due to the voracious appetite Thai employers have for such cheap
labor, say labor rights activists and analysts.
"The (Thai) labor market is hungry for more and more workers everyday,"
said Irena Vojackova-Sollorano, head of the International Organisation for Migration's
South-east Asia office, at the launch of a report on migrant labor here. If the Thai
economy continues to grow, "the labor market will be filled by migrant workers,"
added Jerrold Huguet, co-author of the report, 'International Migration in Thailand',
which was released Aug. 23.
Just how favorable the climate is for migrant workers was reflected in the request
made by Thai employers for 1.6 million workers during last year's immigrant labor
registration drive, states the 79-page report. But by December 2004, only 814,000
migrant workers of the nearly 1.3 million who had initially registered with Thailand's
labor authorities, had received work permits, the report adds.
Huguet attributes the drop to the many steps migrant workers have to go through,
along with their prospective employers, to complete the process for getting work
The high cost of the permit is another factor. "The total fee of 3,800 baht
(95 US dollars) required to obtain a one-year work permit is considered high by both
employers and migrants," the report notes. "From the migrant worker's perspective,
the fee often represents close to a month's wages for a one-year work permit."
The bulk of the unskilled foreign labor comes from military-ruled Burma, where poverty
is rampant, followed by Cambodia and Laos. During the most recent migrant-worker
registration, nearly 80 percent, or 610,106, of the 814,000 foreign workers who got
permits were from Burma, followed by 104, 789 from Cambodia and 99,352 from Laos.
But labor rights activists estimate that the number of workers from Thailand's three
neighboring countries could be much higher, with over one million from Burma alone,
working as undocumented laborers.
The economic disparity between Thailand and its neighbors is stark. While the per
capita income here is 2,238 US dollars, Cambodia has a per capita income of 177 US
dollars, Laos has a per capita income of 317 US dollars and Burma 351 US dollars.
The work migrants do is described as dirty and dangerous and avoided by Thai workers.
Thailand's agriculture sector is heavily dependent on migrant labor, so too, is its
fishing industry and the construction sector, the report says. Also, migrant workers
work as domestic help in affluent Thai homes.
Nearly one in every five migrant workers is in the agriculture sector, while one
in 10 is in the construction sector or in homes as domestic workers, says Sureeporn
Punpuing, another co-author of the report. The significance of their contribution
to the Thai economy is mirrored in the earnings recorded in the North-western province
of Tak, where thousands of migrant workers are employed in the largely Thai-owned
garment factories. During the 12-month period ending April 2003, the Federation of
the Tak Industrial Chapter earned 125 million US dollars.
Monthly remittances by the migrant workers also reveals the scale of this sector.
Close to 12.6 billion baht (315 million US dollars) is remitted every year by migrant
workers to their home countries, states the report.
However, the flow of migrant workers to Thailand, which grew from a trickle to a
flood in the late 1990s, has also generated concerns among migrant rights activists
about the continuing wide-scale exploitation.
Paying migrant workers less than the minimum daily wages, such as 139 baht per day
(3.47 US dollars) in the Tak province, is commonplace, says Jackie Pollock of the
Migrant Action Programme, a group lobbying for migrants' rights in Thailand.
And the victimized worker has no recourse to justice, she added, during an interview.
"Migrant workers cannot form unions to protest against labor violations and
there is no mechanism in place for redress."
Furthermore, tough citizenship or residency laws in Thailand have resulted in a social
problem with nearly 100,000 children of migrant workers being reduced to statelessness.
"We have a situation of more than 100,000 children not in school and not permitted
to work," said Huguet. "These children are in a kind of limbo".
Nevertheless, Pollock conceded that Thai authorities have introduced "progressive
policies toward migrant workers" over the past year, placing Thailand in a better
light than other countries in South-east Asia that have migrant workers, such as
Malaysia and Singapore.
In Malaysia, for instance, pregnant migrant workers are deported. According to Vojackova-Sollorano,
Thailand's shortcomings in meeting international labor standards for migrant workers
is a common scenario in growing economies. "They (the countries) need a quick
increase of labor that comes through illegal channels and the industry profits from
this illegality,"she said.