Time to improve migrants' housing

Time to improve migrants' housing

A photograph taken on June 27 shows migrant workers' accommodation near Talat Bang Chaloeng market in Samut Prakan's Bang Phli district. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul
A photograph taken on June 27 shows migrant workers' accommodation near Talat Bang Chaloeng market in Samut Prakan's Bang Phli district. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

'It has been raining heavily and my house is now flooded," said a migrant worker who has been living in one of the largest construction workers' campsites on the east coast of Thailand for half a decade.

"There are so many mosquitoes outside. I have to take my child inside before 4pm.

"He can't play outside because it is too dangerous for him," said another migrant worker from Cambodia, voicing concerns about the mud, nails and broken pieces of wood around her accommodation.

"It's hot in the summer here because the roof is made from corrugated steel sheets. But we have no choice -- we were made to stay here," said a worker from Cambodia, commenting on the conditions of the "house" that was provided by her employer.

Despite their concerns over the harsh living conditions, most foreign migrant workers in Thailand are grateful for the accommodation provided by their employers as it helps reduce living costs, enabling them to send more money back home to their relatives.

Migrant workers don't only contribute their labour to the country where they live, as they also help the economy back home through remittances.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Asia-Pacific region is the biggest destination for international remittances, with workers from the region sending home over US$256 billion (over 9 trillion baht) back in 2017 alone.

More recently, ILO's 2022 report on migrant workers' accommodation in the Asean region shed light on the living conditions of foreign workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand and offered steps which could be taken to ensure overseas labourers have a decent place to live.

The report criticised the state of migrant workers' housing in Thailand, especially in and around Bangkok, where a significant portion of available land have been developed to cater to the middle- and upper classes, resulting in housing shortages for groups with lower incomes.

The fact of the matter is, the problems underlined in the report have been highlighted by other human rights experts before. The real question is -- how can we make workers' accommodation better?

Most migrant workers are required to live nearby, if not on-site at their workplace, in accommodation provided by their employer, however basic they might be.

As such, the vast majority of these workers live in multi-occupancy dwellings, such as dormitories, where they often have to share a room, if not their bed with others.

Migrant workers also face similar living conditions elsewhere in the country, not just in the capital and other densely-populated cities.

I believe the authorities should require contractors to provide clean and liveable housing for their workers.

They should also provide incentives to contractors to provide for their workers, and fine those who do not.

Moreover, labour inspectors who are at the heart of efforts to protect workers' rights should be empowered by law to inspect workers' accommodation.

At present, workers' camps are technically considered a workplace, and as such, inspectors need permission from the contractors to schedule a visit.

In reality, as most migrant workers in the construction sector live on-site anyway, why should the inspectors kick up a fuss over possibly over-reaching their authority?

While there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to migrant workers' housing, there are international standards which the government should apply.

Back in 1961, for instance, the ILO issued a list of recommendations to improve the state of migrant workers' accommodation, which stated "competent authority should and must be empowered to take appropriate measures to enforce laws and standards for workers' accommodations to make sure their lodgings are safety, hygiene and liveable."

Among the recommendations were certain minimum standards for protection against heat, cold, moisture, noise, fire, and disease-carrying animals, in particular, insects; adequate sanitary and washing facilities, ventilation, cooking and storage facilities and natural and artificial lighting.

Based on my observation and inspection, I believe workers' accommodation outside major cities should be expanded to give workers more space.

Indeed, I am of the idea that contractors, or even the government, should add a community space for migrant workers to unwind.

There are examples of good practices.

After visiting several spots where labourers are housed, I have seen some employers provide small plots of land for migrant workers to grow their own fruit and vegetables, which become source of clean and free food for the workers.

I also believe that employers need to be more informed about international standards regarding labourers' workplace conditions and welfare.

Above all, they need to train their staff so they can help improve migrant workers' living conditions.

At the end of the day, we all know that Thailand needs migrant workers especially in the agriculture and construction sectors.

Thailand needs 3-4 million migrant workers to get the economy going. According to a study by the ILO and OECD in 2017, migrants were responsible for 4.3-6.6% of Thailand's GDP in 2010, while representing 4.7% of the employed population.

Improving workers' accommodation is win-win solution for both migrant workers and our own economy and society.

N Aneksomboonphon is a researcher on labour welfare.

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