The Isaan Record talks to two independent experts on migrant labor after a new government regulation caused a mass exodus of foreign workers last month. What’s in store for Thailand’s labor market, and how should the migrant labor question be answered?

KHON KAEN – Migrant labor experts in the Northeast criticize the government’s new labor law for its fear-based, militaristic logic and say it is out of touch with actual work conditions. They propose steps to avoid harm to the economy and alleviate the various social and legal problems related to transnational movement of people.

“This decree is haphazard,” says Wilasinee Sophaphol, an independent researcher who studies migrant laborers from Myanmar in Khon Kaen Province. “Rather than moving forward or taking a leap somewhere, this law feels like a rewinding to 30-40 years ago.”

The new regulation is exemplary of the military mindset, as it conjures up fears with the threat of fines instead of addressing existing problems with foreign labor, Ms. Wilasinee says.

Foreign workers mainly find employment in the agricultural sector or in construction.

In late June, tens of thousands of foreign workers left Thailand after the military government adopted new labour regulations that provoked fear and panic among the migrant worker community.

The new regulation introduces fines of up to 800,000 baht ($27,700) for employers who illegally hire unregistered foreign workers.

Fearing a labor shortage following the exodus of migrant workers, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered to delay full enforcement of the regulation for six months until January 2018.

New decree is out of touch with reality

Kotchasin Suwicha, a lecturer at Roi Et Rajabhat University, Faculty of Education, sees the new Migrant Labor Law as an attempt by the government to deal with human trafficking issues. Thailand remains on the watch list as a Tier 2 country for human trafficking, according to the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report of the US Department of State.

In order to improve its rating, the government pushed through the new decree, but failed to consider the reality of foreign laborers in the country, Mr. Kotchasin says.

The situation of foreign workers in Thailand differs depending on the area. In the Northeast, the number of documented migrant workers stands at about 17,000 people, according to a recent survey from the Department of Employment. Workers are mostly employed by small- and medium-sized companies, Mr. Kotchasin says.

But the majority of migrant workers in the Northeast remain undocumented. They outnumber documented foreign workers by a factor of 2-3, according to estimates.

In the Thai-Laotian border region, seasonal workers from Laos often choose to enter the country without seeking registration. Related expenses, including 2,000 baht for a physical examination, and 1,800 baht for a work permit, are considered too high by most Laotian workers, Mr. Kotchasin explains.

Agricultural workers from Laos usually earn about 10,000 baht per season from their employment in Thailand.

Foreign workers can receive documented status through a bilateral agreement between Thailand and the sending country, or via a nationality proof. Of the latter category, 60.8% are from Myanmar, 38.3% come from Laos, and 0.8% are from Cambodia.

Mr. Kotchasin argues that the high number of illegally hired laborers from Laos is partly due to the lack of a bilateral agreement for seasonal workers between Thailand and Laos. Following Article 14 of the Migrant Work Act of 2009, the Thai government has made such agreements with Myanmar and Cambodia.

Laotian laborers often choose to find employment in Thailand without going through the official registration process.

Myanmar has changed, workers might not return

In Khon Kaen, the situation among migrant workers from Myanmar is not as volatile as in border areas, which are under stricter control by the state. The majority of migrant laborers there have been documented since around the year 2012.

But the thousands of workers from Myanmar in other areas who fled Thailand after the new decree was announced might not return, Ms. Wilasinee says.

Myanmar is no longer an isolated country. The country is opening economically, and there are increasing calls for “its people” to return. Based on her research, Ms. Wilasinee says that the majority of migrant workers from Myanmar would like to stay in Thailand for another four to five years until the situation in their home country is more stable.

Yet, the chaos caused by the new decree might encourage migrant workers from Myanmar to leave Thailand earlier, Ms. Wilasinee says.

In her research, she found many migrant workers have accumulated considerable funds from their work in Thailand and plan to use this money to start businesses in Myanmar when they return. There are indications that the labor market in Myanmar will soon be able to absorb the migrant workers that find employment in Thailand.

Proposing solutions

Ms. Wilasinee suggests that the government moves away from its top-down approach which does not consider the work realities of migrant laborers. The government should invite all stakeholders to give their opinions, including the migrant workers or their representatives.

Mr. Kotchasin suggests four solutions to the migrant worker problem. First, the government should establish a bilateral agreement with Laos for seasonal labor, which would help to prevent illegal employment.

Second, there should be a demographic survey of transnational families and a development of a legal status for foreign nationals married to Thai citizens, so that they don’t have to be registered as migrant workers.

Third, all stakeholders should partake in the drafting of new legislation. And fourth, labor management should become more diverse and adaptive to each area’s cultural, social, and economic dynamics.

This article was first published in Thai on July 10, 2017. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.