Speaking up for migrant workers – The Irrawaddy

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http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=16944

By SIMON ROUGHNEEN

At the global launch of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2009 Human Development Report in Bangkok on Monday, Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the report’s findings provide “guidance for policymakers around the world.”

The UNDP report calls on countries to focus on the economic benefits that migration can bring to a host country and recommends that recipient countries allow more unskilled workers to move more freely, based on transparent procedures, with access to education and health services, and with reduced transaction costs.

Thailand hosts an estimated 2 to 3 million Burmese economic migrants. The push and pull factors determining Burmese migration to Thailand are stark.

Discussing migration issues in Southeast Asia, the report said, “Someone born in Thailand can expect to live seven more years, to have almost three times as many years of education, and save almost eight times as much as someone born in Myanmar [Burma].”

Thailand has provided a better life for Burmese fleeing a dormant, state-dominated and resource-driven economy at home. Seventy percent of Burmese are thought to be subsistence farmers and many families rely on remittances sent home by migrants to survive.

Burmese emigrants remitted an estimated US $125million in 2007, according to the UNDP report.

Often Burmese migrants in Thailand take jobs that Thais do not want. However, as outlined in a paper by Bryant Yuan Fu Yang in the Spring 2009 edition of the Thailand Law Journal, some Thais see Burmese as taking away jobs from locals.

“Since Burmese migrants, especially the undocumented ones, are willing to work for very low wages and in unsafe environments, many view them as driving down working conditions,” said Bryant Yuan Fu Yang.

However, the Thai economy has grown strongly since 1997, at least until the onset of the global economic crisis in September 2008, and it is widely-accepted that the influx of cheap Burmese labor enabled many Thai businesses to keep costs down and retain competitiveness in an increasingly global market.

This fits in with the overall findings discussed by UNDP. “Migration brings significant benefits across the board, which could be further enhanced by better policies at home and abroad,” according to the lead author of the report, Jeni Klugman.

However, it appears that Thailand’s policies do not yet match up to the recommendations in the UNDP report. In his speech on Monday, PM Abhisit acknowledged that migration “brings with it risks in terms of human smuggling and trafficking.”

A recent US State Department report on human trafficking named Malaysia as one of 17 countries of concern and though the report commended Thailand for its efforts to curb trafficking, it mentioned media reports that alleged that Burmese migrants in Malaysia are trafficked into Thailand.

To prevent this, and to regularize the situation for Burmese migrants in Thailand, many of whom work illegally, the PM said, “We realize that the most effective way to protect these migrants is to legalize their status and bring them into the formal labor market.”

One of the mechanisms being put in place is the nationality verification process for Burmese migrants in Thailand, which is based on an agreement signed by the Royal Thai Government and the Burmese junta in 2004. Implementation was delayed as the junta insisted that verification take place in Burma—requiring all Burmese migrants to cross the border to register for the process.

Both sides agreed to allow verification to take place in border towns in Burma, and all Burmese migrants in Thailand must complete the process by February 2010 or face deportation.

Migrant advocacy groups are lobbying against the process, which they see as unwieldy, and potentially compromising the security of migrants from ethnic minorities, and their families living in Burma. Many migrants do not want to return to Burma for fear of questioning or detention by Burmese officials, say rights advocates.

According to a joint press release issued by the the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation (SERC), the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) and the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee (TLSC), Thai authorities have not informed Burmese migrants or NGOs in sufficient detail about the process.

Andy Hall directs the Migrant Justice Programme at HRDF. He told The Irrawaddy that “the nationality verification process goes against everything being recommended in the UNDP report.”

According to the release, “Migrants can submit biographical information to brokers to get called to verify their nationality in Burma and obtain a passport within months, or instead submit information formally to employment offices and receive a slower response. Formal government costs are low (600 to 2,100 baht/US $17 to $60) but broker fees are unregulated and high (starting around 7,500 baht/US $200). RTG officials often ‘recommend’ private brokers to speed up the process.”

Migrant advocates also fear that traffickers will exploit the nationality verification process, undermining the positive steps taken by Thailand to curb human trafficking.

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