Exorcising 'little ghosts'
Illegal Thai migrant workers are a growing problem for the government
To tackle the problem of "Phi Noi" (Little Ghosts), a term referring to Thai illegal migrant labourers in South Korea, the government must also tackle unscrupulous recruitment agents, experts say.
Suchat Pornchaiwiseskul, director-general of Department of Employment, said the government is discussing with its South Korean counterpart increasing the quota under the Employment Permit System (EPS), and providing courses such as language proficiency to upgrade the skills of Thai labourers to work in South Korea.
"We are working hard to turn these 'Phi Noi' into legal workers," he told the Bangkok Post.
The government is struggling to deal with illegal migrant labourers who are returning to Thailand after the South Korean government granted them an amnesty. These illegal migrants will not be blacklisted and will be allowed to return to work in South Korea again, thanks to an MoU between Thai and South Korean governments.
About 150,000 Thai migrants are working in South Korea, of whom 70,000 hold proper work permits. The Ministry of Labour expects over 60,000 Thai illegal labourers will return to the country by the end of June.
South Korea is becoming a preferred destination for Thai blue collar workers because of the attractive salary -- about 50,000 baht per month. South Korean employers also prefer Thai workers in some popular businesses such as Thai massage outlets and factories.
Yet solving the Phi Noi problem is more complicated. Apart from trying to improve the skills of Thai labourers and seeking a bigger quota of jobs they can legally perform, the Ministry of Labour is struggling to find a way to deal with recruitment agents, a major factor that led to the rise of the "Phi Noi."
"The internet has become a major platform for recruitment networks. Recruitment agencies use on-line platforms to access potential workers which makes it hard for authorities to arrest them," he said.
Samarn Laodamrongchai, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University's East Asian Studies Institute, said the problem exists because of recruitment agencies.
"Phi Noi migrants cannot get jobs by themselves. They get assistance from both Thai and Korean agencies which lure them to work by promising a high salary."
Recruitment agencies charge a 200,000 baht fee for travel and arranging the jobs.
"Some workers obtained a loan from a local agent just to travel to work in South Korea. Working in foreign countries is not a matter of money for these villagers. It is also a question of pride for families as those workers return home with a lot of money," said a recruitment agent in Udon Thani province. In some villages, local administrators or local influential figures also work for recruitment agencies sending potential workers overseas and earn a commission.
This agent said recruitment agencies are in demand because Thai workers are not qualified to get legal jobs under the EPS quota. "Some workers might take two years to pass training and language courses, so they use recruitment agencies to get jobs for them."
One legal Thai worker who obtained a legal job under the EPS system told the Bangkok Post that the increasing number of Phi Noi reflects the labour shortage problem in South Korea.
"Migrant workers attract business owners because of their low wages. Small and medium enterprise (SME) owners are likely to hire these kinds of workers," this worker said.
He also said massage and spa businesses are growing and tied to the sex industry.
Some women provided sex services along with a massage. "The problem is those who do not consent are eventually forced to do so," he said.
When asked for a solution to illegal migrants, he said government officials should not only arrest illegal workers.
"They should also enforce labour laws on employers too," he said.
Pinyuda Chamchansri, labour attache at the Royal Thai Embassy in Seoul, said the South Korean government launched a scheme to reduce the number of Thai migrants by allowing them to return home legally before June 30.
"For those who want to come back legally, the government gives the opportunity to clear their criminal records. However if they are caught again they will be fined according to how long they have violated the law during their stay," Ms Pinyuda said.