Migrant labour reform a top priority

Migrant labour reform a top priority

Pictures of trucks loaded with frightened migrant workers heading for the border dominated the news last week. The scenes we witnessed of crowds overwhelming border checkpoints were followed by the inevitable meetings between officials of the countries involved, and by vows to correct misunderstandings and fix the problem as soon as possible.

By the end of the week about 200,000 migrant workers, the majority of them Cambodians, had left Thailand for their respective countries. There is still no assurance that this exodus will end despite the insistence by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) that it plans no crackdown against migrant workers in Thailand.

All the country’s military leaders want to do, they say, is bring everyone into the system through registration (something the previous government also attempted) to ensure that all workers are properly protected.

Thailand is a magnet for an estimated 2 million migrant workers, almost all of them from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. At least, that’s the official number. Some estimates put the real total, legal and illegal, closer to 5 million.

These workers are doing the menial jobs that most Thais have given up on, from making shoes to sewing shirts, catching and cleaning fish, to working as maids, drivers, and even waitresses. We Thais are too hooked on these workers to give up the leisurely lives we now pursue.

Some of these workers may also have skills we never imagined they had. The other night I visited the Krungten seafood restaurant on Ratchaphruek Road in Bangkok’s western suburbs, where I was surprised to hear a waitress tell me, in clear and fluent English, that she did not speak Thai because she was a migrant worker.

My waitress may not represent the bulk of migrant workers but more qualified people are coming into the local workforce, and their contribution could be harnessed by a system that better manages these talents to do the right job.

This could be possible if the NCPO makes a real effort to sort out one of the most pressing issues facing the country. Currently the men in green seem determined to solve everything that’s wrong with the country — from taxi mafias to not enough football matches — all at once, but seriously, they need to set some priorities.

Some major economic sectors including the construction industry, which has lost thousands of labourers this month, are counting on action.

The crisis of confidence among unskilled workers in Thailand could be turned into an opportunity to revamp the way illegal migrant workers are hired, fired and work in the country.

Think about it, if your maid from country A, B or C steals your jewellery and disappears to her home country, could you ever follow up? The answer is “Very unlikely”. Or what about the Cambodian construction worker who is told he will be paid only 200 baht a day, take it or leave it, because he has no papers?

The NCPO could decree that all migrant workers with proper documentation (passports should be a must) could work for one year in the country with a stamp from, say, the Ministry of Labour or Foreign Affairs. The system would be not very different from the non-immigrant ‘B’ visa and work permit issued to skilled foreign workers.

By doing so Thailand could become the first country in Asean with a clear policy on foreign unskilled workers and the same time ensure that its dependence on this labour can be addressed.

Such a policy would also be worth emulating under the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which, sadly, has limited its much-hyped “free movement of labour” to eight professions so far.

But mobility of unskilled workers is just as important. Countries such as Thailand clearly need a steady supply of labour to power their economies and keep so-called sunset industries humming until they can move up the value ladder.

The NCPO has shown in the month since the coup that it’s not afraid to make big changes, and getting serious about migrant labour is about as big as it gets.

Previous registration efforts failed because the documentation requirements for workers were weak; it was easy to fake a name or home-country address and receive a piece of paper that allowed them to work freely in Thailand.

Passport-based documentation would help clear up some doubts and also lower the cost for Thailand, since the passport-issuing country will already have done its own thorough checks on the applicant.

The junta could earn a lot more brownie points by making this meaningful change instead of telling drivers of commuter vans where they can and cannot park.

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