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Migrant workers hit by Thailand's iron fist

Publication Date : 17-06-2014

 

Seizing power was the easy part; the everyday task of running the country is proving far more difficult for the Thai military. Chief among those difficulties is management of the workforce, which the junta must now realise is not primarily a security issue.

Pictures emerging last week of Cambodian workers fleeing the Kingdom are a worrying development. Cambodians searching for work have of course flowed back and forth over the border for years, but the Thai junta's declaration that it would "manage" illegal migrant workers has prompted an unprecedented exodus.

Last Tuesday, the junta announced its 59th order, setting up a committee chaired by General Tanasak Patimapragorn, chief of the Defence Forces and deputy leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), to oversee management of migrant workers.

The order sparked reports on the social media of a crackdown on foreign labourers in the Kingdom. The reports and pictures of fleeing migrants were branded "rumours" by the authorities, but they spread like wildfire through Thailand's migrant-worker community, causing fear and panic among both "legal" and "illegal" workers. Many rushed for the border and the safety of their homeland.

Thailand is second home to more than two million migrant workers, most of them from neighbouring countries. The greatest number come from Myanmar, followed by Cambodia and Laos, according to the Labour Ministry. Thailand also sees a considerable number of illegal migrants from other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, but authorities tend to turn a blind eye to them.

The foreign workers are much in demand. They are crucial to business, forming a major segment of the workforce for industry, agriculture and trade and service sectors. Households want them for chores and taking care of children, while restaurateurs employ them for their fluent, if accented, Thai. They have been a familiar part of life in Thailand for decades, crucial to the smooth running of the economy. They represent a threat to neither security nor peace. Of course, a few commit crimes, but no more than our own citizens.

However, our security forces - notably the military - have always considered migrants to be potential troublemakers. Military leaders see them "stealing" jobs from Thais, even though most Thais spurn the menial jobs in question. Some generals even worry that some of the foreigners could be spying on Thailand for their countries. Meanwhile an ultra-conservative elite has paranoid visions that "alien" workers could eventually assimilate into Thai society and come to dominate. (This group prefers, conveniently, to forget its own multiracial ancestry.)

There is nothing wrong with deciding to regulate migrant workers, but formulating such a policy under military rule with an agency headed by the top brass sends the wrong signal.

The authorities have been dealing with this matter for decades and come up with many different methods to handle it. Thailand has a memorandum of understanding with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to recruit and regulate these workers. Registration and nationality-verification processes are ongoing. Intervention by the military junta was unnecessary. The Labour Ministry might be far from perfect, but it has pre-existing instruments and mechanisms to handle the job.

Managing migrant workers is a complex task that must take into account both supply-and-demand economics and human rights. Thailand already suffers a poor reputation over its efforts to combat human trafficking. An immigration policy that places too much emphasis on security concerns creates more problems than solutions.

 

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