Thailand and Burma wrangle over migrant worker laws – The Irrawaddy


Deputy Labour Minister U Myint Thein (centre) speaks to media in Bangkok on April 19 2012 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK―More than 200,000 workers from Burma could be flown into Bangkok to be employed in Thai factories under a direct state-to-state agreement, according to a Thai Labor Ministry spokesman.

The plan is designed to address a labor shortage in Thailand and would involved available workers being flown directly to the capital. Burma has an estimated three million unemployed and many millions more on extremely low incomes.

The announcement was made at a joint Bangkok press conference on Thursday featuring representatives of both the Thai and Burmese labor ministries. The move would have to be ratified at a bilateral meeting in Burma next month.

Proposals to safeguard workers rights include having contracts that could be revoked or ended after six months on mutual consent if Thai bosses abuse their Burmese workers physically, the employer dies or the business finishes, or the employer violates the Thai Labour Law.

Meanwhile, five new centers enabling Burmese migrant workers to better-formalize their status in Thailand open on Friday.

Brandishing a new sample purple-covered machine-readable passport, which he says will be issued at the five additional nationality verification centers, Burmese Deputy Minister for Labor Myint Thein told assembled media that the Thai government finally agreed to allow the centers to open after a four-month delay.

The five new centers―in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Samut Sakhon, Samut Parakarn and Surat Thani―were originally due to begin operations on Jan. 1 and will bring the number of locations up to nine in total.

“We hope that all undocumented workers from Myanmar in Thailand can become documented, so they can escape exploitation,” Myint Thein said during a rare foreign press conference given by a Burmese official.

It remains unclear why Thailand so quickly changed tack during Myint Thein’s visit, facilitating the opening of the verification centers within 24 hours after a four-month delay.

The deputy minister added that the Thai authorities would reduce the visa fee for Burmese migrants from 2,000 to 500 baht, and said that the Thais agreed to allow children and dependents of migrants to be issued with a new certificate of identity.

The deputy minister’s visit comes as Burmese and Cambodian migrant workers protest exploitation and discrimination at two factories in Thailand, one of which is a supplier to Walmart, thought to be the world’s biggest retailer. Walmart’s 2011 net sales of US $419 billion are slightly above the total GDP of oil-rich Norway, ranked 23rd in the world at $414 billion.

Some of the workers at the Phattana seafood plant in Songkla and Vita food factory in Kanchanaburi are undocumented, leaving them vulnerable to abuses by the factory management. For those with papers, it was alleged that Phatthana illegally confiscated the passports of as many as 2,000 migrant workers, leaving them in a state of debt bondage, unable to leave the country and barely able to survive. Confiscation of documents is a violation of Thai law and is a breach of Walmart’s own internal supplier standards, say activists.

The protests started when factory owners withheld food allowances and changed payment terms, apparently a reaction to a new minimum wage policy enacted by the Thai Government.

Some of the workers were trafficked into Thailand from Cambodia and Burma. Typically, undocumented Burmese come to Thailand via a network of Burmese brokers and Thai employers and police.

According to activists working on the Vita and Phattana cases, “all of them are in debt because they had to pay for transportation to come to Thailand that cost 15,000 – 20,000 baht [$500-670] per person”.

Vita Food Factory in Kanchanaburi employs 7,000 people, mostly foreign migrants. Of those, undocumented workers mostly came from Burma through the brokers. Those that have acquired work permits have had to pay brokers 5,500 baht, well above the official 3,800 baht fee.

A letter sent to Walmart by activists and seen by The Irrawaddy told the retail multinational that, “workers at both factories appear to be facing serious violations of international human rights standards, local laws and Walmart’s Standards for Suppliers,” and called on the company to help “end to this treatment of workers and do more to ensure that this treatment is not occurring in other supplier factories.”

The missive appeared to have an impact, as by Thursday afternoon Phattana had returned all confiscated passports to the migrants.

Responding to a question from The Irrawaddy, Myint Thein said that the Burmese government had not yet raised the issue with Walmart, but said that they could do so if other avenues do not resolve the stand-off, after the deputy minister met today with whom he termed “the chair” of the seafood factory in Songkla.

Migrant worker activist Andy Hall said that “it is noticeable that for the first time in two decades, the Myanmar authorities have reacted quickly to a migrant worker problem in Thailand.”

Saying that this will put pressure on the Thai government to address long-standing abuses of migrant workers in Thailand, he cautioned that “at the same time you cannot pass the buck to Thailand. The brokers who brought the workers to Phattana in Songkla operate from Myanmar.”

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