Migrant workers in Thailand who could not return to their home countries because of the COVID-19 lockdown have lost jobs and suffered financial hardship during the pandemic, but could soon see their outlook improve as the country starts to reopen.
Thailand has long been a regional magnet for millions of migrants who come from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and other neighboring countries to find work. But the public health crises, combined with its economic ripple effects and coronavirus-related movement restrictions have battered key Thai industries that employ many foreign workers since the first coronavirus case was detected here in mid-January, according to migrants and labor rights advocates.
Now, prospects for laid off migrants returning to work could brighten because Thailand this past week began to loosen restrictions and allow businesses start up again gradually, and is to ease more restrictions on them later this month, officials said.
“By May 17, unless anything causes a change, we will implement a second phase of restrictions easing in crowded big business areas. So we seek your cooperation for now to not add to infection numbers,” Dr. Taweesilp Wissanuyothin, spokesman for Thailand’s COVID-19 taskforce, told reporters on Thursday.
Shopping malls and large retail outlets selling construction materials are to reopen on that date, according to government officials. Already restaurants, food courts and supermarkets have opened, but social distancing requirements must be followed. Also open are public parks and beauty salons.
Nich Wan, a migrant who left Battambang in Cambodia more than a decade ago to find work in Thailand, said she had seen the negative effects of the pandemic.
She said she knew of more than 100 workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar who had lost their jobs after construction projects where they were employed were halted.
Nich is relatively lucky compared with her peers. She receives a daily wage of 380 baht ($11.80) for her job at a construction site and has a second job at the contractor’s grocery shop to earn extra money.
Other migrants who are jobless in Thailand and have been unable to return to their countries have struggled to pay rent and utility bills as well as put food on their tables, labor rights activists said.
“As COVID rages on, I have less work to do and earn less but I have to stay here,” Nich told BenarNews, adding she had hoped to go home but was unable to cross the border to Cambodia during the Songkran New Year festival.
At the end of March, the Ministry of Labor reported that more than 2.8 million migrant workers – mostly from Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – were registered to work in Thailand. The United Nations estimated that another 2 million migrants work informally and are not included in the count.
Since then, a staffer with the Migrant Working Group (MWG), an NGO, estimated that more than 500,000 migrants lost their jobs because of COVID-19 while hundreds of thousands returned to their home countries.
In Myanmar, officials announced that more than 150,000 migrant laborers had flooded into the country since March after losing their jobs in Thailand and China, according to Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews.
Around 40,000 arrivals that month overwhelmed state officials who had expected significantly smaller crowds and prompted the government to appeal to others to return only after April 15. Another 20,000 crossed into Myanmar at the end of April over the Myanmar-Thai Friendship Bridge 2, connecting Thailand’s Mae Sot with Myawaddy in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state.
Meanwhile, between Thailand’s border closure on March 23 and mid-April, about 113,000 Lao migrant workers returned home, the Laotian health ministry said at the time.
Suchart Pornchaiwisetkul, director-general of the Thai Department of Employment, said that while it was hard to estimate the number of migrant workers who remained, the government had aid available for them.
“Thailand has two funds – compensation funds and social security funds – which both Thai and foreign enrollees are covered in the cases of injury or lay-off,” Suchart told BenarNews. “For those outside of the funds such as seasonal workers in agricultural sector, they can buy into a health plan provided by the ministry of public health.”
In April, the cabinet of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha approved compensation of about 7,080 to 8,000 baht (U.S. $220 to $250) per month for three months from the social security fund for local and foreign enrollees.
In reality it is difficult for foreign workers to claim compensation, said Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator with the Migrant Working Group.
“The government thinks the workers get compensated promptly, but they in fact need to go in person to the fund offices and deal with Thai-language paperwork, while certain areas are blockaded and officials work from home,” Adisorn told BenarNews.
“Also the laws require employers to find new jobs for workers within 30 days in the case of business suspension or a layoff, but there are no new jobs, making their situation even more complicated,” Adisorn said.
Suthasinee Kaewleklai, a labor rights advocate at the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), said the procedure was too complicated. She pointed out that workers were required to obtain layoff paperwork from their employers before they could file a claim for aid.
“If the government is sincere in its efforts to fix the problems, it should ease the compensation claim procedure by allowing them to go and deal with the social fund office right away,” she said. “And the office should keep their records properly so it will be easy when they are to be reemployed after the COVID pandemic subsides.”
Meanwhile, Suchart said the employment department was working with locals and labor envoys from neighboring countries to find jobs for workers.
“We hear them and take care of them. The economy is bad and there are many who got laid off. We coordinate with labor envoys to help find them a new employer,” he said. “But asked when we can allow workers to come back? It’s up to the government and the anti-COVID task force.”
Thailand recorded eight new COVID-19 cases on Friday to bring the nationwide total 3,000. The death toll remains at 55.
Globally, more than 3.9 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 272,000 people have died, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Johny Adhikari, a Chiang Mai-based activist for Myanmar workers, told BenarNews that most were facing hardships in Thailand.
“The majority of workers want to go home because they don’t have money to pay rent, water bills, power bills and for food as they are jobless, while the borders are shut and there is no bus service,” he said.
Ai Bee, 24, from Myanmar’s Shan state, said he had lost money because was paid on a daily basis while working for a small construction contractor in northern Thailand. He did not enroll in the social security system.
“I was asked to work intermittently, working a day and off a day, so I earn less lately. I make a bit over 300 baht ($9.30) per day and when I’m off I earn nothing,” he told BenarNews.
“If there is something the Thai government could do to help, please help us,” he said.