Myanmar’s ban on male workers going abroad may worsen Thai labor shortage

RFA and BenarNews staff
Myanmar’s ban on male workers going abroad may worsen Thai labor shortage A migrant laborer from Myanmar works in a garment factory in the northwestern town of Mae Sot, Thailand, May 24, 2007.
[Reuters/Sukree Sukplang]

Myanmar’s ban on men going abroad to work could cause a labor crunch in Thailand, where workers from its neighbor have for years helped sustain growth, industry groups said.

The ban by Myanmar’s junta, to augment its depleted military amid battles with insurgent groups fighting to end military rule, has meant no fresh permits have been issued for conscription-age men hoping to find jobs abroad.

Now about half of the 250,000 Burmese workers in Thailand find themselves in legal limbo as their Myanmar government-issued work permits expire, with no indication Myanmar will renew them, said Roisai Wongsuban, an adviser for the Thailand-based Migrant Working Group.

“There are some 150,000 Myanmar workers ending their tenures, as per the MOUs, who have to renew necessary documents with the home government,” Roisai told Radio Free Asia (RFA), an affiliate of BenarNews, referring to memorandums of understanding on migrant workers between the neighboring nations.

“It is unclear whether they are subject to the ban. Some are afraid to go back home to renew their paperwork. …They fear they won’t be allowed to come back.”

The founder of a charity helping Myanmar migrants in Thailand said he had no doubt any young men going back to renew their overseas work permits would be pressed to join the military.

“They’re afraid to go back to Myanmar because the government won’t allow them to go abroad,” Htoo Chit of the Foundation for Education and Development told RFA. “As soon as they’re back in Myanmar, they have to work for the military.”

The quarter of a million Myanmar citizens working legally in Thailand comprise the largest contingent of Thailand’s 3.3 million foreign workers. Most of the Burmese workers are employed in factories, the service sector, agriculture and some 25,000 of them in the fishing industry.

‘Issue work permits regardless of illegal entry’

Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, Thailand, needs an additional half a million foreign workers and it has been looking to Myanmar as the source for most of them, said a senior official at Thailand’s Department of Employment.

 “We’re running short of a work force and those youngsters need jobs,” Somchai Morakotsriwan, the department’s director general, told RFA.

The Thai government had yet to draft a plan for how to deal with the new circumstances but Somchai said he expected there would be an impact, though the extent was not clear. Much could depend on whether young Myanmar men could get across their border, he said.

“[We] have to look at any border checkpoints, whether or not they can come back. At the moment, we don’t have information,” he said.

The president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, said Thailand should accept Myanmar workers no matter what their official status was.

“One way Thailand could help them is to issue work permits regardless of illegal entry or the lack of passport,” Mongkol told BenarNews.

“They’ve fled war, dodged conscription, we give them jobs, they help our business.”

As a result of Myanmar’s enforcement of its conscription law, which requires men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 to serve in the armed forces for two years, more than 100,000 people have fled abroad to avoid war, the Burmese Affairs and Conflict Study found last month.

Htoo Chit, of the Foundation for Education and Development, said many young Burmese men had been slipping into Thailand to join an unknown number already working illegally.

“They hope Thailand will issue them pink cards,” he said, referring to a temporary identification card allowing foreigners to stay.

Thailand and Myanmar’s other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbors have been trying to promote dialogue in Myanmar with a five-point peace plan but the Burmese generals, who overthrew an elected government in a 2021 coup, have largely ignored the effort.  

Roisai said it is imperative for Thailand to revise its cooperation with a Myanmar regime whose grip on power appears to be increasingly tenuous.

“This is the big question for the government to tackle,” she said.


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