Migrants face red-tape nightmare
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, migrant workers made up more than 10% of Thailand's labour force and generated 4.3% to 6.6% of the country's GDP, according to information from the International Labour Organization in June.
It was reported that 2.3 million regular migrant workers from Myanmar lived in Thailand in 2019. The real number is estimated to be higher because this estimate failed to include the number of irregular migrant workers. Myanmar migrant workers also generated US$2.8 billion in remittances, equivalent to more than 4% of Myanmar's GDP.
The Covid-19 situation and Myanmar's latest coup d'etat in February have hampered Myanmar's economy and, in particular, left low-income families and communities more vulnerable ever than before.
According to the World Bank, the Myanmar economy is projected to contract by 18% by 2021, with one million jobs lost, and many labour workers experiencing wage declines due to low working hours and scarce employment opportunities. Moreover, the United Nations has warned that 3.4 million people in Myanmar will soon be going hungry.
Some migrant worker groups from Thailand estimate that more than 7,000 migrant workers had returned to Myanmar to renew their MoU work permit before the massive outflow sparked by the Covid-19 outbreak.
However, the enforcement of border restrictions to halt the spread of Covid-19 coupled with the impact of the coup have delayed those MoU work permit renewals in Myanmar. Nonetheless, the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) reported that Myanmar migrants were likely to return to Thailand. Still, the restrictive procedures demanded of Thai employers poses a significant challenge for them.
Covid-19 has had a detrimental effect on the Thai economy and worsened the labour shortage. To boost the economy, the government has announced it will accept migrant workers from Myanmar under the terms of the MoU with the neighbouring country. According to its statement, migrant workers will be classified into three groups.
The first is the so-called "green" group, which includes those who have been double vaccinated for at least a month and can demonstrably prove this.
The second or yellow group includes migrant workers who have received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The third or red group comprises those who have not received any Covid jabs; nevertheless, their employer in Thailand must bear the expense of quarantining them as well as pay for any related medical exams.
Myanmar's health system has collapsed following the military takeover on Feb 1. As such, this tough criteria remains a substantial obstacle for potential MoU migrant workers from the country.
Vaccination opportunities for the general population, low-income families, and migrant workers remain gloomy under the current regime led by coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing.
Moreover, the MoU application process and renewal options are only available in big cities like Yangon, whereas most migrants hail from rural villages.
Because of the costs associated with living in Yangon while waiting for their permit to be renewed, most end up in financial bondage as they have borrowed money from relatives and sold assets and property, including their home and land.
Considering the political upheaval and travel restrictions imposed by the military, migrant workers not only have difficulties getting vaccinated in Myanmar but also face numerous barriers to completing the MoU procedure needed to work in Thailand.
Many end up relying on brokers to facilitate their new working life in Thailand as they find themselves desperate to escape the food shortages and political turmoil back home.
Others are caught at the Thai border and exposed to human trafficking.
According to a local source, some 500 Myanmar migrants who entered the country illegally in the expectation of finding work were detained between Sept 1 and Oct 4 of this year. Many of them paid around 28,000 baht apiece to brokers for their illegal border crossing.
In addition, many Myanmar people are now preparing to cross the border in search of employment because the MoU work permit renewal services have either been inactive or ineffective for more than two years. They complain it is not realistic to expect they can pay the costs to meet all the MoU criteria, making this system inaccessible to them.
The Thai government must work with the relevant labour departments and employment agencies in Myanmar to open the border and help shore up the Thai economy while also tackling the impending labour shortage.
Moreover, the government and employers here must provide a vaccination programme for potential MoU migrant workers to make the recruitment process smoother. Such moves would also stem the tide of human trafficking by smugglers, brokers and money launderers.
Tual Sawn Khai is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Graduate Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.