The Thai cabinet on Tuesday approved visa extensions until July 31 for about 1 million migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to ease potential labor shortages as the country’s economy reopens.
During the coronavirus pandemic hundreds of thousands of the 2.8 million foreign workers in Thailand legally returned to their home countries after losing their jobs when their employers ran into economic hardships, according to NGOs and neighboring government officials. But about 1 million – many of whom are now unemployed or underemployed – were stranded in Thailand and could see their visas expire, making them illegal immigrants.
“The cabinet agreed to compromise and allow workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to stay and work temporarily from June 1 until July 31 in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19,” government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat told reporters after a regular weekly meeting of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s cabinet.
In addition, the decision to allow the workers to remain in Thailand could “ease labor shortages for a better preparedness in restoring economy after the COVID issue subsides,” she said.
Narumon said one group of workers had gained visas and work permits through a labor memorandum of understanding (MoU) with neighboring countries that expired on May 31.
Many of the foreign workers found jobs in labor-intensive businesses such as restaurants, fisheries, construction, factories and domestic workers, while more than 300,000 came to Thailand for seasonal jobs in the agriculture sector, according to a local NGO, the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN).
Since Thailand announced COVID-19 restrictions in the second half of March many foreign workers were laid off, often without compensation, the NGO said.
“Fifty-one Myanmar workers in Samut Sakhon filed a complaint with us that they got fired without compensation. Forty others in Krathumban, another district, were also fired without pay,” Suthasinee Kaewleklai, a staffer at MWRN, told BenarNews.
She said foreign workers, like their Thai counterparts, were entitled to protection in accordance with the Social Security Act, adding that they could use travel documents and work permits to enroll for social security funds.
Some of those who lost jobs had struggled to find a way home to Myanmar until the neighboring countries agreed to partially open their borders.
Myanmar worker Sein Sein, 28, crossed the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge II in northwestern Tak province on Monday, returning to Myanmar’s Myawaddy town.
“I thought of going home since Myanmar’s New Year (in April) but then the Thai government shut off the borders to prevent COVID-19 spread, so I couldn’t travel,” Sein Sein told BenarNews.
He worked as a petty laborer in Mahachai town, the center of fisheries in Samut Sakhon, a province in central Thailand.
“When things are back to normal, I will come back to work in Thailand again. But during these couple of months, my family and I are facing hard times,” he said. “I don’t know when COVID-19 will be gone.”
On Tuesday, Thailand recorded one new COVID-19 infection, bringing the total number of cases to 3,083 and one new death, bringing the nation’s death toll from the virus to 58.
Globally, more than 6.3 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 377,000 have died as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Mariyam Ahmad contributed to this report from Pattani, Thailand.