In early February, Department of Employment (DOE) director Prawit Kiengphon authorized the return of Thai workers to Libya. More than 10,000 Thai refinery and construction workers were evacuated from the North African nation in March 2011 after an uprising broke out which resulted in the overthrow of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime. As thousands of Thais are mobilized for employment in Libya, it is time to consider whether the state’s labor export program sufficiently represents the interests of Thai transnational migrant workers. Is it truly safe for Thais to be deployed to Libya? And should the state be doing more to protect the financial interests of its migrant citizens?

Profits come with mortal risks

The Thai state has been promoting the overseas employment of Thais, most of whom are drawn from the country’s poorest and least developed Northeastern region, for more than three and a half decades.  It competes with more than a dozen Southeast and South Asian states for lucrative employment positions in overseas labor markets.

In January 2012, Sri Lanka permitted its migrant citizens to return to Libya.  In response, Mr. Prawit asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to hastily verify that conditions in Libya are safe before Thai jobs were lost to Sri Lankan workers. In his February announcement, Mr. Prawit made no reference to Sri Lanka. Instead, he simply stated that the Thai Embassy in Libya had determined that conditions had returned to a state of normalcy.

However, the DOE’s responsibility for verifying the safety of destination countries is potentially comprised by its duty to promote overseas labor migration.  A new Ministry of Labor policy charges the DOE with increasing the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% in 2012 to a total of 600,000 workers.  This goal would be farther from reach if the Libyan labor market was lost.  Prior to last year’s uprising, Libya ranked as the sixth most common destination of the more than four dozen countries which receive Thai labor.

A recent Amnesty International report which depicted Libya as a troubled nation where “lawlessness” prevails stands in stark contrast to the Thai Embassy’s assessment of normalcy. The report details the continued existence of “hundreds of large militias” that are “largely out of control… their actions threatening to destabilize Libya”.  In addition, it documents how “frequent armed clashes between different militia groups” have resulted in the death and injuries of “uninvolved bystanders”.

It is not only Amnesty’s report that casts doubt on the stability of the situation in Libya.  The DOE’s new regulations which apply to Thai employment agencies supplying Libyan employers indicate that the DOE is concerned that Thai migrants may be affected by future unrest.  Now, employment agencies must ensure that migrants sent to Libya are protected with life insurance policies.  In addition, agencies must submit evacuation plans and written assurances that they will shoulder the costs of any future evacuations.

The new regulations ensure that the Thai government will not have to foot the bill for a costly evacuation as it did following the 2011 uprising. Yet while the regulations mitigate the financial risks that the Thai state incurs in the export of labor to Libya, they do nothing to lessen the financial risks assumed by Thai migrants.  As became apparent when Thai workers returned unexpectedly from Libya last year, these risks for migrants are substantial.

Paying the price for labor export  

Unfortunately, employment agencies generally charge Thai job-seekers under the table service fees in excess of the government stipulated limit.  According to Mr. Daeng Phiwdam, an Udon Thani native who has worked in Libya for most of the past fifteen years, first-time migrants to Libya are charged approximately 90,000 baht in agency fees which they typically pay with money borrowed at high interest rates.  Mr. Daeng estimates that it takes one and a half to two years for most migrants to recover their agency fees with their 10,000 baht per month Libyan salaries.

When migrants are forced to return home prematurely, they often come home saddled with debts that are difficult to recover in the domestic labor market. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, only 40 of nearly 10,000 Thai workers in Libya chose not to return home when the uprising broke out in February 2011. However, Mr. Daeng explained that the prospect of returning without money to pay an agency debt is often more daunting than that of remaining in a war-ravaged country. “If you stay you die, if you go home you also die because you are in debt and there is no way of recovering it,” said Mr. Daeng.

A second problem resulting from last year’s evacuation is that many migrants returned to Thailand with outstanding salary claims.  Given that it is not uncommon for migrant workers in Libya to be paid once every three months, the amounts owed to many migrants were not insignificant.  According to DOE statistics, nearly one year after the workers returned, roughly a quarter still have unresolved salary issues with their Libyan employers.

Returned migrants, especially those with outstanding employment agency debt, are likely anxious to resume work in Libya.  Now the DOE has given them the green light to take up residence in the still-troubled African nation.  The DOE has implemented measures to reduce the financial burden that it will incur in the event of future unrest in Libya.  It should also do the same for migrants.  The DOE should implement regulations which require employment agencies to refund most of workers’ agency fees if they are prematurely returned to Thailand through no fault of their own.  In addition, the DOE should more aggressively pursue salary claims on behalf of Thai migrant workers.  It should also consider implementing regulations which require Libyan employers to pay Thai migrants on a bi-weekly or a monthly basis.  Finally, it is high time for the Thai state to reconsider whether its labor export program is truly in the best interests of its citizens. When unemployment is less than one percent domestically, why is the Thai state concerned about losing employment positions in a war-ravaged nation?  The DOE’s efforts would be better directed toward creating more highly remunerative employment positions at home.