Migrant workers policy yet another flop

Migrant workers policy yet another flop

Migrant workers wait at a registration centre in Bangkok. Thailand's new law on migrant labour emboldens a bloated bureaucracy, widens the window for corruption and further undermines workers' rights. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Migrant workers wait at a registration centre in Bangkok. Thailand's new law on migrant labour emboldens a bloated bureaucracy, widens the window for corruption and further undermines workers' rights. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

Assessed from just about any angle, it is difficult not to see Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's recent policy announcements on migrant workers as a series of self-inflicted flops. While damage control is the government's immediate concern, Thailand's longer-term priorities require an overhaul of its manpower strategies and a broader change in the Thai mindset on migrant workers from neighbouring countries.

The Prayut government's latest round of shooting itself in the foot began with an executive decree on migrant labour, which became effective on June 23. This decree was endorsed by a pliant legislature which the Prayut-led junta had set up after seizing power. Hefty fines in the vicinity of half a million baht were imposed on employers of undocumented workers, whereas illegal migrants are liable for penalties between 2,000-100,000 baht, a jail term of up to five years, or both.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

To be documented and therefore legal, the decree requires employers to pay a fee of 20,000 baht for a licence, whereas migrant employees would have to fork out another 20,000 baht. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia, have returned to their home countries for fear of their safety and security. Some of them will face difficulties coming back because the costs of acquiring the "Certificate of Identity" in their countries are steep, not to mention additional fees to middlemen and officials to regain jobs in Thailand. Migrant workers, both documented and otherwise, are estimated to be upwards of 4 million, or more than 10% of Thailand's 39-million workforce. Of this number, the illegal migrants are difficult to quantify but are taken to be large because the cumbersome and extortionist Thai system and procedures effectively discourage registration.

After a few days of a massive labour exodus, Gen Prayut reversed course by invoking his magic wand, known as Section 44 of the coup-induced interim constitution, to put a 180-day hold on the decree. If we recall Section 44 and its ephemeral ban on packing passengers in the back of pickup trucks, this is not the first time Gen Prayut has enacted a policy one day and reversed it the next.

A number of implications naturally stem from this policy fiasco. Firstly, why did the prime minister use an executive decree through a puppet parliament this time rather than just launch another Section 44 motion? As the prime minister is keen to take up President Donald Trump's invitation to visit the White House, was the decree an effort to influence the United States' Trafficking In Persons report, which came out just a few days later and left Thailand on the Tier 2 Watch List? We deserve to know the criteria of the prime minister's absolute power under Section 44 as opposed to an executive decree from the junta-appointed legislature.

Second, it is clear again why a lack of accountability has left the government in the lurch. How can a self-appointed government with absolute control and no public accountability know what to do? It has to be enlightened and essentially know what is best for the Thai people while keeping itself clean from corruption and graft. On the migrant workers decree, this is not the case in view of the huge public outcry, especially from small businesses that rely on migrant labour. If so many people are so upset with the decree, it should have been considered with more caution and care.

If Gen Prayut knows what to do in the first place, then why does he keep correcting himself afterwards? If he does not know what to do with government, then his administration should first listen to the people, at least those who are most involved and have direct stakes. We are likely to see more wayward policies because we have seen and will learn more and more that public accountability is imperative and indispensable for sound policy-making, and the Prayut government has very little of it.

As the law in Thailand is fundamentally about power rather than justice, the decree emboldens a bloated bureaucracy, widens the window of corruption for officialdom, and further undermines workers' rights and personal dignity. The reality is that Thailand needs these migrant workers from next-door countries. They perform most of the menial jobs in this country, from backbreaking construction and seafood factories to household help and dishwashers at food stalls. Yet they are treated like inferior commodified objects.

Migrant workers practically have to pay an arm and a leg to get from their home origin to their workplaces in Thailand. The beneficiaries are labour traders and Thai civilian bureaucrats, policemen and soldiers. Yet migrants are not paid the Thai minimum wage, and are frequently maltreated. What Thailand needs to do is to liberalise the migrant worker industry, not tighten it, in a transparent and accountable fashion. If worker registration can be made less costly and less cumbersome, more migrant workers and their Thai employers will enter the system. This would also undermine the parasitic industry of labour officials and commercial handlers both in Thailand and in the border areas with Myanmar and Cambodia who prey on them.

Finally, attitudes matter the most. After his usual bluster following the public outcry, Gen Prayut vowed to the Thai media in a patronising fashion that the migrant workers will come back, implying that they have few better choices in their own countries. But not all migrant workers who left will return this time because the costs at both ends may be prohibitive.

Instead of such a narrow-minded and short-sighted view, the current Thai leader and those who come after him would be better off coming up with a vision and strategies not only to make it easier for migrant workers to have decent livelihoods in Thailand but to also give them more rights that Thais have long enjoyed, starting with basic education and health care, and leading to residency permits.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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