Migrants Leave in Large Numbers as Thailand Adopts Tough New Labor Rules

Nontarat Phaicharoen
170703-TH-migrant-620.jpg Migrant workers sort fish in a port in Mahachai on the outskirts of Bangkok, June 30, 2015.

Tens of thousands of foreign workers have left Thailand after it adopted tough new labor regulations in late June that penalize undocumented migrants, traffickers who smuggle them in and employers who hire them, a government official told BenarNews.

Adopted by the Thai junta on June 23, the new rules call for a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 1 million baht (U.S. $29,418) fine per each person convicted on trafficking charges. Employers charged with hiring undocumented workers could face fines of 400,000 baht ($11,766) to 800,000 baht ($23,532) for each employee.

Those entering the country and working illegally could face a sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 baht ($2,941).

“We recorded about 20,000 workers, but that was just a portion of those returning home. They went back home voluntarily,” Sutha Saiwanich, the deputy governor of Tak, a province in northwestern Thailand that borders Myanmar, one of the neighboring countries from where thousands of workers migrate for largely menial and low-paid jobs.

Mae Sod district in Tak province is about 500 km (310 miles) northwest of Bangkok. It serves as a major transit point for illegal border crossings into Thailand across a river that separates the two countries.

The Labor Ministry reported that Thailand has about 2.7 million registered migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia. Of them, 1.4 million have work permits and are not affected by the law, while another 1.3 million are allowed to work temporarily until March 2018, pending verification of their identities.

The ministry estimates that another 2 million migrants are working without papers.

PM establishes grace period

Last week, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters that migrants affected by the new regulations could continue to work temporarily, pending verification of their identities.

“These people have problems because they are not authenticated yet. They are temporary workers,” Prayuth said. “They cannot change workplaces. Their countries of origin must have proof of identity for them.

“I did not mean to cause hardship to anyone, but the law cannot be revoked,” Prayuth said.

He will establish an executive order to allow a 120-day grace period for migrants to obtain verification without being arrested.

The president of the Fisheries Association of Thailand, whose industry employs many migrants, said the grace period was needed.

“The foreign labor decree is a good law for controlling the labor force, but the government must let them have [four] months to get paperwork done,” Mongkol Sukcharoenkana told BenarNews. “After that, it can stop registration of workers for good.”

Extortion and Instigation

A source in Mae Sod district told BenarNews that police exploited loopholes to extort money from employers and migrant workers.

“Police took a chance to raid a furniture business in Mae Sod town, asking for 4 million baht ($117,647) as a settlement. But the owner did not accept the deal and said he would rather be jailed than pay a bribe,” said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Hearing of the allegations, National Police chief Gen. Chakthip Chaichinda threatened to severely discipline any officers who attempt to extort money from workers or employers.

Meanwhile, labor rights activist Andy Hall said the effort to force registration was likely “planned and instigated by corrupt and powerful officials, agents and brokers.

“After a decade and more monitoring migration in Thailand it’s clear to me tens of thousands of migrants only move like this with instigation. Mass profit is to be made in a short time and from panic and commotion,” Hall said in text message to BenarNews from Europe.

Hall fled from Thailand in November 2016 following his conviction on a defamation charge resulting from a lawsuit by the Natural Fruit company regarding a television interview in Myanmar. He alleged migrant workers faced adverse work conditions at the company’s pineapple processing plant in Thailand.

“Many migrants are fleeing Thailand voluntarily at a high cost. Some employers cover the cost, but many also are unceremoniously fired without compensation,” he said.


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