PHNOM PENH/RAYONG: When Leng Lyda swapped Cambodia for a fishing town in Thailand hoping to find a job in the seafood industry, he was ready for hard work. But he wasn't prepared for the delay, or the debt.
The 22-year-old landed a job as soon as he arrived earlier this year, but without the right to work, he spent three months living rough on the docks and racking up debts while his employer processed the papers to hire him as a migrant worker.
"All I can do is wait," Lyda said, sitting in a ramshackle cafe as Cambodians dragged giant nets onto trawlers behind him.
"After, I have no choice but to work for him until I repay the debt," he said, explaining that he would start his job owing at least 30,000 baht to his employer due to the registration fee and other expenses. "My fate is in his hands."
Millions of migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos toil in the low-skilled sectors, where limited state oversight and unscrupulous employment practices leave many vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery, activists say.
The government last year launched an overhaul of the registration process for migrant workers, granting them the same labour rights as local hires, including access to free health care, pension contributions and child allowances.
In the first phase of the revamp, the government aims to ensure 2 million legitimate migrant workers are registered afresh — a process that must be carried out by employers but paid for by workers earning as little as 10,000 baht a month.
Visas, work permits and health checks — the conditions of the new agreement — cost a total of about 6,700 baht.
However, migrants and labour activists said that employers, middlemen and brokers are inflating the cost and saddling workers with fresh debts — trapping many in exploitative workplaces as they struggle to pay off what they owe.
Debt bondage is one of the world's most prevalent forms of modern slavery, which affects 610,000 people in Thailand, shows the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.
'Edge of society'
Dozens of migrant workers in the eastern province of Rayong told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they had been charged up to 25,000 baht by their employers to be registered under the new system — almost four times the cost set out by the government.
"[Migrant] workers [in Thailand] mostly get their information from the employers and brokers who take advantage of them and profit by keeping a percentage of their pay," said Sa Saroeun with the Raks Thai Foundation, a legal aid charity.
"Migrant workers live on the edge of society, afraid to do wrong, so whatever their bosses tell them, they will pay," added Saroeun, who works to inform migrants about their legal rights.
The Labour Ministry is telling migrant workers the real costs of registration with the new system and encouraging them to report employers who charge higher fees, said Suwan Duangta, inspector-general at the ministry's department of employment.
"Workers are not able to submit requests on their own," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "If the employers charge more, the workers can file a complaint to the department, and then the department will ask the employer to return the money."
Yet charities that help migrant workers said they had little confidence in the state's message finding its intended audience.
Thailand has 3 million migrant workers on its books but the United Nations' migration agency (IOM) estimates there are at least 2 million more working illegally across the country.
But the overhaul is unlikely to encourage undocumented workers or new arrivals seeking work to become registered, according to Reuben Lim, an IOM spokesman in Thailand.
Informal fees, time-consuming visits to government agencies, and confusion over legal processes have long dissuaded migrants from obtaining legitimate jobs, both activists and workers said.
"Many migrant workers continue to believe that the cumbersome process does not outweigh the speed, flexibility and cost-effectiveness of irregular channels," Lim of the IOM said.
When about 30 Cambodian factory workers were informed of the new system at a workshop in Rayong in June, just six of them said they would be able to cover the registration cost up front.
The rest told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the only option was to ask their bosses to pay the fee on their behalf, then become indebted to them and face deductions from their wages.
Bosses often baulk at the lengthy registration process and instead turn to middlemen, according to labour activists who say this practice increases migrant workers' debts with no guarantee that the terms of the repayment will be transparent or fair.
"There's still no mechanism to ensure that the deduction will be legal," said Chonticha Tangworamongkon, director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which provides legal aid to migrants.
Like many other migrants across Thailand, Cambodian construction worker Mao Malis has no idea how much money she owes her boss, or how long it will take to clear the debt.
"For now, it's impossible to change employer," said Malis, whose employer in Ban Phe, a fishing town 200km south of Bangkok, takes about 15% of her 11,000 baht salary each month to repay her registration costs.
"He has invested in me, so I am stuck here until he agrees that I've paid everything back."