Thailand: Migration continues as unions scramble to delay new rules

A mass informal migration out of Thailand is continuing, following new rules to crackdown on unregistered migrant workers. On Tuesday the Thai Government announced that the grace period for implementing the rules will now be extended from 120 to 180 days until 1 January 2018, giving unions and NGOs more time for monitoring and to push for further consultation.

According to a briefing from the ILO’s Migrant Working Group, as of 4 July around 200,000 migrant workers from Myanmar had returned to their country through immigration checkpoints. Almost 5,000 Cambodian migrant workers had returned through one checkpoint alone, however country-wide data was not available. Reports have emerged that officials at a checkpoint in Mae Sot district had extorted money from irregular workers.

“This is a senseless policy with no consideration of human rights”, said BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson. “Thai officials know how crucial migrant workers are to the local economy. The migrant worker laws in Thailand were already unnecessarily restrictive; we urge the Thai Government to immediately rescind the crackdown operation and suspend the implementation of the new law altogether.”

The Thai Government operates a ‘pink card’ system for the registration of irregular migrant workers. A registered pink card-holder can work for up to two years, however they are not eligible for social security, leave, workers’ compensation or drivers’ licences. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called on unregistered migrant workers to undergo the required documentation procedure and nationality verification process.

Mass layoffs triggered by the law have been experienced by many migrant workers in Thailand, even those with pink cards. For example, the Building and Wood Workers’ Industrial Council of Thailand (BWICT) has been defending a group of migrant workers laid off from the Tostem construction materials factory in Patum Thani Province, producing aluminium windows and doors.

It is well established that the Thai immigration regime is plagued with problems and corruption. Workers who cannot register within the unreasonably short annual registration period contend with police extortion, and disproportionately high costs put workers on the backfoot from the outset. The mountains of paperwork required drives work to labour brokers, feeding corruption.

Registered workers still have to contend with Thailand’s labour laws, which take little account of international human rights norms. They are restricted to certain labour-intensive industries and prohibited from travelling outside of their workzones. They are still bound to their employer, punishable by arrest or deportation.

BWI uses the term ‘irregular’ in reference to workers who are undocumented or without papers.