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Since 2014, Thailand’s coup-led government has prioritised eliminating human trafficking, especially among migrant workers. This renewed attention has been in direct response to a storm of international criticism aimed at the poor working conditions suffered by migrant workers. So far, the government has responded with hasty action and a number of legislative changes.
Thailand’s most recent move on migrant worker policy — the Royal Ordinance on Foreign Workers Management — has been a debacle. While not a complete failure, a shift in policymaking is needed.
Coming into effect on 23 June 2017, Thailand’s government cited ‘unavoidable urgencies’ in preserving ‘national economic security’ as the reason behind the Royal Ordinance. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha further explained that the new law is necessary for Thailand to live up to its international commitment on human trafficking.
The Royal Ordinance has made progress in this regard through Article 49, which states that labour recruitment processes cannot incur any fees on migrant workers. This Article is consistent with the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) standards. If enforced, Article 49 could be a powerful tool to address the problem of debt bondage — an undefined period of labour services as security for a debt — among migrants.
Despite some progress, the new Royal Ordinance has had unintended consequences. The new law has created chaos and confusion in the management of migrant workers.
Due to the abrupt nature of the policy change, both employers and migrant workers were confronted with new severe penalties overnight. Employers can be fined a maximum of 800,000 baht (US$23,800) for each undocumented migrant, while workers can be jailed for up to 5 years or fined up to 100,000 baht (US$3000), or both.
These overnight changes sparked an exodus of migrant workers similar to 2014, when the government announced a crackdown on irregular migrants. In the week of 23–28 June 2017, reports suggest that approximately 60,000 migrants fled Thailand. Employers have also attempted to avoid penalties by laying off and abandoning at least 500 migrants, leaving them to find their own way home despite just arriving in Thailand. Migrant worker advocates are also concerned migrant extortion could rise as laid off workers journey home.
This recent development has triggered mixed reactions and grave concerns among the private sector. In the wake of the exodus, a labour shortage is looming in the agriculture, construction, service and seafood industries — the sectors also hardest hit by the new Royal Ordinance.
To reverse the crisis, the government is now backtracking from the policy by invoking Article 44 of the Interim Charter, issuing a 180 day grace period to employers and migrants to comply with the new law before penalties will be enforced.
This latest episode of the migrant worker ‘drama’ reveals Thailand’s outdated, top-down, security-driven approach in managing labour migration. The presence of migrant workers is often viewed as the cause of Thailand’s communicable diseases, environmental degradation and rising crime rate. As noted by the ILO, Thailand’s security-driven outlook places heavy emphasis on the admission process, the suppression of irregular migration and employment and the repatriation of workers. As a result, the protection of migrants is a marginal concern and often in contradiction to preserving Thailand’s national security.
This trend of management is no longer feasible, as migrant labour is vital to Thailand’s labour-intensive economy. Thailand is fast becoming an ageing society with a rapidly declining fertility rate. Thailand’s workforce is expected to decrease by 11 per cent by 2040 — a rate higher than any other developing country in East Asia.
Thailand needs migrant workers now more than ever. The welfare of migrant workers should not be considered as a national security concern, but rather central to the wellbeing of Thailand and its economy. A well-documented ILO study has found that migrant workers positively contribute to Thailand’s productivity.
It is time for a shift in policymaking away from a security-driven approach. Policymakers can start by reconsidering Article 15 of the Royal Ordinance, which authorises the Minister of Interior to confine the residence of migrants to particular zones. Thailand’s policies — whether it be the registration program, memorandum of understanding agreement or nationality verification — also need to be simpler, inexpensive and accessible for migrants. Otherwise, Thailand’s policies will continue to drive migrant workers into irregular migration that relies on smuggling networks, making them vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking.
Put simply, Thailand’s policy should be ‘migrant worker friendly’.
Thailand cannot afford any more complications in the management of migrant workers. During the given 180-day grace period, policymakers need to widely consult relevant stakeholders and reach out to both employers and migrant workers with extensive information campaigns on further changes. This will help prevent further debacles in Thailand’s migrant worker policy.
Ruji Auethavornpipat is a PhD Candidate in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.This article appeared in East Asia Forum, 10 August 2017.