The invisible workforce

The invisible workforce

2018 saw some success in govt fight to control and protect migrant workers

Cambodian workers cry after being arrested by immigration police.
Cambodian workers cry after being arrested by immigration police.

This year saw the government achieve some success in its efforts to deal with illegal migrant workers, a problem often linked with forced labour and human trafficking.

In June, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha thanked the United States' Department of State for upgrading Thailand in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks countries prone to the crime, after the country fell to the lowest Tier 3 category in 2014.

Later in September, European Union ambassador Pirkka Tapiola applauded the Prayut administration for improving legal measures to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, after the EU yellow-carded Thailand with a final warning in 2015, following reports of forced labour and chaos in the industry.

However, serious attempts to bring thousands of migrant workers, along with refugees and ill-intentioned foreign visitors, in line with the law have caused a debate over the methods used to tackle the problem.

It pits labour advocates, employers and diplomats from some countries against police-led state authorities from various agencies.

The former used the United Nations (UN)-recognised International Migrants Day on Dec 18 to ask the government to treat migrants and refugees fairly and protect their fundamental rights while the latter continue to insist on strict enforcement of the law.

Close to 3,400 migrants and refugees have already lost their lives worldwide this year. That is why "Migration with Dignity" is the theme of this year's designated day.

"Migration is the great issue of our era, and a force for dignity because it allows people to choose to save themselves and choose participation over isolation," according to the UN website.

Request for leniency

The first group, though agreeing with the crackdowns on foreigners and workers illegally staying in Thailand, wants authorities to slow down, if not abandon, some legal actions.

Recently, advocacy groups petitioned the government to help labourers who failed in the nationality verification process.

The check of their country of birth is required as part of a process to legalise their working status. The Employment Department of the Labour Ministry believes that about 1.5 million foreigners, mainly from Thailand's neighbouring countries, worked illegally last year.

By law, each worker must have their nationality verified to obtain a certificate of identity, which they must have to apply for a visa and work permit.

However, many Muslim Myanmar workers could not have their citizenship checked because they did not have identity cards or house registration documents.

In many cases, "Myanmar authorities did not grant them these documents", migrant labour advocate Adisorn Kerdmongkhon claimed, asking the Thai government to make clear its response to the issue.

The migrant labour advocacy network used International Migrants Day to ask the government to devise measures to help this group of applicants.

"One measure would be to allow them to live and work temporarily," Mr Adisorn said, citing this as a quick fix that would give the government time to solve the problem in the long term.

Economy building

In the view of labour activists, migrant workers deserve empathy as, collectively, they play a big role in driving economic activity in Thailand.

During a recent seminar held to mark the occasion, participants were educated about the prosperity the workers help build in the countries they work in.

Labour advocates urged all sectors to value the contributions migrant workers have made to Thailand and treat them all equally as human beings.

Issues concerning migrant workers are increasingly important because "migration occurs every day and everywhere worldwide," said Francesca Gilli, an attache of the EU delegation to Thailand.

Plea for fair treatment

The government's efforts to regulate migrant workers are understandable, but Bangkok roti shop owner Duangjai Haemma's experiences prompted her to question police who enforced the law.

Officers recently inspected her shop, which hires a migrant worker as a kitchen hand. According to Ms Duangjai, 41, the worker is fully legal, but proof of his status was kept in a car. This was enough to cause the officers to detain her cousin and the worker at a police station.

Ms Duangjai managed to pay the bail for the release of her cousin and their colleague who will attend court for a ruling into the case tomorrow.

She insisted on fighting for the worker's rights, but to her surprise, one policeman suggested she pay a fine of 5,000 baht and let authorities deport the worker, arguing it was an easy solution.

"We felt we were not treated fairly by police who did not allow us to take those documents to show as proof that day," Ms Duangjai said.

Strict legal measures needed

The Immigration Bureau, which is at the forefront of dealing with illegal stays of all types, said it will continue to strictly enforce the law to keep all foreigners in order.

"Labourers from neighbouring countries must always carry their work permits. If they can't show them to police upon request, they can't complain if they are taken to police stations," Immigration Bureau chief Surachate Hakparn told the Bangkok Post.

"The officers are only doing their duty according to the law," Pol Lt Gen Surachate said.

However, Pol Lt Gen Surachate said, this does not mean police can arrest anyone. They are still bound not to abuse their power and observe the rights of foreign tourists and migrant workers.

"Police and authorities from other agencies, including the Interior and Labour ministries, will only target lawbreakers. With this in mind, the government will work in the same direction and will never be lenient toward wrongdoers," Pol Lt Gen Surachate said.

Strict law controversy

It is not the first time the authorities have adopted such an uncompromising stance. Last year, the Prayut government issued an executive decree on the better management of migrant workers only to be attacked by critics who said its punishments were too heavy-handed.

The decree caused an exodus of undocumented workers back to their homelands.

Gen Prayut later had to issue a powerful Section 44 order to delay the enforcement of parts of the decree which stipulated the stringent punishments.

Road ahead

Illegal Cambodian migrant workers are rounded up at a warehouse in Soi Onnut 70/1 in Bangkok to be taken to the Immigration Bureau ahead of deportation proceedings. Labour advocates and employers are calling for the state to clarify its policies towards foreign workers to mark the United Nations' International Migration Day this year.

It remains unknown whether the government will again soften its approach towards illegal employers and migrant workers, especially after the recent steps it has taken to allow those already here to formalise their employment status.

Such a stance looks rather unlikely. Even the request from a diplomat from Nigeria for leniency towards his countrymen who had violated laws in Thailand was rejected during his talks with Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, Pol Lt Gen Surachate said.

Migrant workers, tourists and even foreigners seeking refugee status must equally respect Thai laws, according to Pol Lt Gen Surachate.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must help to solve refugee issues, or the "Immigration Bureau and local police have to arrest these [prospective] refugees," Pol Lt Gen Surachate said.

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