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Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Migrant workers fight back
The week-long strike by nearly 1,000 legal migrant workers in Khon Kaen is one of the reasons why most of the 2-3 million migrants in Thailand still prefer to stay underground.
Why should they have to go through a very complex process of red tape on both the Burmese and Thai side of the border and pay hefty passport and visa fees simply to end up like the migrants in Khon Kaen, whose legal status cannot protect them from job insecurity and labour exploitation?
The law says legal migrant workers have the same labour rights as Thai nationals. In reality, the minimum wage is still beyond the reach of most migrants.
But that is not why the workers at the Dechapanich Fishing Net factory decided enough was enough.
It all began when six of their co-workers were fired after taking more than three days of sick leave. No matter how heartless the sacking was, the migrants there would have quietly swallowed it had they been allowed to find a new employer.
Apart from the fact that theirs is a two-year visa, the law also allows migrant workers to appeal to the labour authorities to explain their side of the story when fired, to prevent maltreatment. But their legal rights were ignored, by both the employers and the authorities.
As in other factories, the Dechapanich workers' passports and other legal documents were confiscated by the employer. This is illegal. Yet it is standard practice openly condoned by officialdom. When the sacked migrants got their passports back, they found to their horror that their visas had been cancelled. In addition, the photos on their overseas workers' identity cards issued by the Burmese authorities, were not theirs.
Who tampered with their passports and their overseas workers' identity cards? That question spread like wildfire in the factory. Fearing that the same thing could easily happen to them too, all the other migrant workers demanded their passports and papers back. The work stoppage occurred after the employer turned a cold shoulder to their demand.
According to labour activist Suriya Monlek from MAP Foundation, a non-profit rights organisation, passport confiscation is not the migrants' only problem at Dechapanich Fishing Net Co. They are also victims of debt bondage and labour exploitation, a common problem for migrants across the country.
Apart from being paid 140 baht a day instead of the minimum wage of 157 baht, each worker at Dechapanich was told they owed the factory 10,800 baht which the company allegedly had paid in advance for their legal documents. To repay this debt, each worker had to work for free an extra hour and a half every day. Or they could pay a lump sum including interest, of 18,000 baht.
All this is illegal. All this is also happening with some 5,000 migrants in other fishing net-for-export factories in Khon Kaen, which raises the question of whether the authorities who tolerate this illegal practice are liable for negligence.
The work stoppage at Dechapanich, believed to be the biggest and longest for the migrants so far, finally ended on Tuesday. The immigration officers have agreed to reactivate the visas for the 6 sick workers if they can find new jobs. The employer has agreed to return the passports and other legal documents to the workers and to respect the minimum wage law.
Despite fear of future retaliation from the employer, the Dechapanich strike is historic. The message to migrants across the country is that migrants' legal rights are for real. They can no longer be bullied and exploited at whim.
The employer as well as the immigration and labour officials also have learned that they must obey the law.
It remains unresolved, however, why the photos of migrants' overseas identity cards were changed. It shows, however, that the complex and expensive nationality verification process for the migrants' passports and visas is seriously flawed, or plagued with corruption. Or both.
The road ahead for better rights protection for migrant workers will be long and tough. But one thing is certain. The time of migrants' total submission to exploitation is over.