Facing a backlash from employers and observers alike, Thailand has backtracked on a new, heavily criticised law that imposes stricter punishments on irregular workers and their employers, though thousands of Cambodians are still being deported.
At the end of last month, Thailand passed a royal decree that allows for imprisonment of up to five years and fines of almost $3,000 for undocumented and irregular migrants. It also imposes hefty fines on employers and brokers.
On Friday, however, the Thai government suspended the implementation of the decree for 120 days. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said that within this window, “there will be no arrests or crackdown on illegal workers except for those who violate human trafficking laws”.
Last week, companies had voiced their displeasure with the new decree, claiming that it particularly hurt small and medium enterprises.
“We have got many complaints from our members that many companies, especially SMEs, were badly affected by the implementation of the Royal Decree on Recruitment of Foreigners,” said Chen Namchaisiri, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries.
He added that the new law was unlikely to harm bigger companies, as they had the resources to recruit foreigners in compliance with the law.
The decree was also unpopular with migrant advocates and observers, with migration researcher Maryann Bylander saying in an email that even the delayed implementation failed to address the inherent flaws in the decree itself.
“At this point, the suspension looks to me like a band-aid move that does little to address the problems with the new ordinance,” she said. “Both Cambodia and Thailand have a structural reliance on migrant labor, and much of that labor remains undocumented. It isn’t clear how the Thai government expects either of these things to change in the next 120 days,” she said.
The Migrant Working Group in Thailand (MWG) in a statement on Friday condemned the law, which they say might “induce more corruption”.
The decree, they say, invoked Section 172 of the Thai Constitution, which permits the cabinet to issue a royal decree “for the purpose of maintaining national or public safety or national economic security”. This threshold, the statement reads, was not met.
Adisorn Kerdmongkol, coordinator of MWG, said in an email yesterday that the law should have been reviewed by National Legislative Assembly and included a public hearing from all stakeholders.
And despite the 120-day delay, the Thai government continued deporting hundreds of workers back to Cambodia on the weekend.
Sin Namyeing, a Poipet police officer, said that they had “received more than 900 workers on Friday and more than 800 workers returned from Thailand on [Saturday]”.
“Sunday, there were . . . about 450 to 500,” she said.
However, Dy The Hoya, of labour rights group Central, said that deportation was still better than being brought to court – a fate that he said more than 100 migrant workers have faced since the implementation of the new law.
He argued both deportations and the decree formed part of an effort to demonstrate progress to other countries. “They want to show to the international community that [Thailand] is not a place for trafficking, so they have to show they’re taking serious actions,” he said.
But while deportation may be better than facing jail and fines of thousands of dollars, it also puts the migrants at risk, The Hoya said. “First, they don’t have a job . . . and second they often have a huge bond to microfinance institutions,” he said. Hence, they often had no choice “but to go back through agencies and pay a lot of money.”
The Cambodian government therefore should push its Thai counterpart to grant more time to adjust regulations, he said, and to regulate recruitment agencies better.
The Labour Ministry issued a letter on Friday asking the Information Ministry to ban recruitment agencies’ advertisements.
“These companies usually deceive our residents,” they write. “They lie to people to convince them to go to work in Thailand . . . Please, Ministry of Information, take action to stop that advertisement.”
Labour Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour said that companies had to ask the ministry for permission to broadcast advertisements on the radio. “We issued such a letter to the Ministry of Information to protect the interests of the Cambodian workforce who wish to work in other countries,” he said.
Preeda Tongchumnum, a member of MWG, yesterday said that the situation bore many similarities to a Thai crackdown on undocumented migrant workers in 2014.
“The story that happened three years ago now returned,” she said.
Tens of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers fled from Thailand to Cambodia during a crackdown by the military regime.
Adisorn, her colleague, agreed in an email that “It’s pretty [much] the same.”
“Migrant workers [return home] due to their fear of the government measures,” he said. “In this situation the employers take the opportunity to dismiss their workers with no compensation or other labour rights.”
But The Hoya disagreed, saying that if implemented, the new decree “would be worse than in 2014”.
“In 2014 they only deported a huge number of workers, but they didn’t have serious law . . . Now it’s completely different. It’s worse,” he said.
Additional Reporting by AFP and The Bangkok Post