BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Despite Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s threat to arrest hundreds of thousands of illegal migrant workers, the Cabinet yesterday approved a draft amendment that would lessen punishments.
The Foreign Worker Management Act of BE2560, which came into effect last year, prescribed what are widely accepted as harsh penalties. The controversial law ignited panic among migrant workers from neighbouring countries last year, including Cambodia, prompting thousands to return home due to fear of the punishments.
However, the Cabinet yesterday gave the green light to a draft amendment that would lessen the punishments against illegal workers and their employers.
The draft seeks to eliminate jail terms of up to five years facing illegal workers.
According to the draft, fines against employers would be reduced from between Bt400,000 ($12,747) and Bt800,000( $25,493) per illegal worker to between Bt10,000 ($319) and Bt100,000 ($3,190).
Four of the original law’s articles have been suspended in response to concerns from many sides.
In addition to reducing penalties for many offences, the draft amendment also relaxes some conditions for migrant workers and their employers.
Prayut said the amendment could help to accelerate the migrant worker registration process. On Monday, the premier ordered faster nationality verification to help track criminal records and provide protections to workers.
Adisorn Kerdmongkol, an expert on migrant workers, praised the Cabinet decision, saying it would help ease tensions in the labour sector. He said the previous punishments opened the possibility that government officials would take bribes from employers who used illegal workers and feared the consequences of the law.
The amendment also gave workers the right to change employers without being punished, while the first version prohibited workers from changing employers, Adisorn added.
Millions of migrant workers live and work in Thailand and authorities have documented more than 1 million from neighbouring countries, including Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
The tougher law, as well as the slow process of national verification and registration, created problems in the labour market last year, resulting in panic among workers and employers as well as a Cabinet reshuffle.
Prayut expressed anger on Monday while inspecting a national verification centre after learning that the Labour Ministry had failed to complete the installation of a retina scanner, which delayed registration.He then threatened to arrest all illegal workers and their employers who failed to comply with the law.
Addressing ‘modern-day slavery’
After the panic and controversy last year, the government extended the deadline to enforce the law from the end of last year to the end of June this year.
However, the process to legalise migrant workers is moving at a slow pace. So far, 988,798 migrant workers have had their nationalities verified, including 784,091 Myanmars, 157,232 Cambodians and 47,475 Laotians.
An estimated 698,675 workers have until June 30, when the law is to be enforced, to register. Once registered, they will be allowed to work in Thailand for another two years.
Migrant workers in Thailand have been involved in a nexus of human trafficking and illegal fishing for years, in what the United States and European Union have called modern-day slavery.
Thailand is listed on the US Trafficking in Person (TIP) report Tier 2 Watchlist. Meanwhile, the European Union issued a yellow card against the country in April 2015 for taking insufficient measures to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Prayut yesterday cited his government’s “successful and continuous efforts” in coping with illegal fishing, including monitoring workers on and offshore to protect the country’s seafood exports and resources.
“The labour problem is not only about us, but also about the neighbouring countries, since [migrants] have to be registered at borders,” he said. “When they sneak back to their countries, that makes the procedure slow. We need to have sufficient officers and tools to manage this properly.”