Bangkok Post » Post Blogs
Monday, January 12, 2009
Migrant workers' woes
The Abhisit government's decision not to register new migrant workers is a mistake that only serves abusive employers and corrupt police.
It also shows that the present government's awareness of human rights and understanding of the migrant labour problems is close to zero.
Remember the mass suffocation tragedy last April when 54 Burmese migrant workers suffocated to death in a crammed cold-storage truck while being smuggled into Thailand? This would not have happened if we had a registration system that worked.
But instead of making it simpler, cheaper and easier for the workers to receive health and other welfare benefits to encourage more registration, successive governments have stuck with the punishing system to discourage newcomers.
Since paying high registration fees does not guarantee any protection from police extortion and labour abuse, the majority of migrant workers prefer to remain underground, thus keeping the human trafficking rackets alive and well with support from corrupt police.
The poor registration system also explains why the number of documented migrant workers has been falling over the years. In 2004, there were more than one million migrant workers seeking registration. Last year, the number of registered workers dropped to 500,000 while it is estimated that there are more than two million migrant workers in the country.
It is bad enough to leave the faulty system as it is. But to stop registering new migrant workers altogether? This will only worsen the situation of human trafficking and labour abuse. Too bad the Abhisit government cannot see that.
False fear is again to blame.
According to a high-ranking labour official, Cabinet decided against the registration of new migrant workers out of fear that they would steal Thai jobs amid the sagging economy and soaring unemployment.
This is a big misunderstanding, said Sompong Srakaew, an advocate of migrant labour rights. Most migrant workers are actually doing the difficult, dirty and dangerous work shunned by Thais. Last year, for example, when Samut Sakhon province advertised for 150,000 jobs in fishery-related jobs, only about 120 Thai nationals applied, he said. The jobs were taken up by migrant workers, mostly the ethnic Mon who had fled harsh poverty and persecution from Burma.
The Cyclone Nargis tragedy will definitely increase cross-border migration, given the vast destruction of Burma's rice bowl, the Irrawaddy Delta, and the junta's paltry efforts to assist its own citizens.
The lack of legal status will heighten their fear of deportation, forcing them to put up with slave-like working conditions and police extortion. When they fall ill they will have no choice but to endure, or to turn to quacks. For migrant women, rape is one of their greatest risks, particularly those working as household help. Most victims, however, will be too fearful to press charges and risk further abuse at the police station, thus allowing the abusers to enjoy impunity. Meanwhile, the underground migrant children, robbed of the right to an education, will grow up to become another generation of modern slaves to serve Thailand's insatiable hunger for cheap labour.
Sadly, they cannot expect much sympathy or assistance. Most Thais, having been brainwashed by our ultra-nationalistic history, view migrant workers as potential criminals and Burma as Thailand's traditional enemy.
All this does Thailand no good. Economically, failing labour standards means the export orders will go elsewhere. Morally, turning a blind eye to migrant workers' suffering exposes our own heartlessness. Meanwhile resentment, alienation, lack of education and life opportunities will make migrant youths a social time-bomb.
Only the employers and the police are happy to cash in on the illegality of the migrant workforce.
Registration is the first step to undo these labour knots. By refusing to register new migrant workers, the Democrat-led government has failed miserably to honour labour rights and humanity.