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Thailand Urged to Extend Migrant Worker Deadline

  • Daniel Schearf

A Burmese migrant washes dishes outside her room at an apartment building housing Burmese migrant workers in Mahachai, an industrial area south of Bangkok, August 25, 2010.

A Burmese migrant washes dishes outside her room at an apartment building housing Burmese migrant workers in Mahachai, an industrial area south of Bangkok, August 25, 2010.

The head of the U.N. International Labor Organization, Guy Ryder, is expected to urge Thailand to extend a Friday deadline for migrant workers to become documented or face deportation. Bangkok is threatening to deport more than a million migrant workers, most from Burma, who do not finish a process called nationality verification, which activists say is flawed. The United Nations agency opposes mass deportation.

Ryder is set to meet for a second time Saturday with the Minister of Labor. His visit to Thailand coincides with a December 14 deadline for all foreign workers to become documented or face deportation.

Thailand has about two and half million migrant laborers, mostly from Burma, but only half a million have completed the required process known as nationality verification or NV. Thai labor authorities have extended previous deadlines but appear to be firm on this latest one.

Thai employers that depend on cheaper foreign labor worry if deportations proceed their business could be affected, said Nilim Baruah is the ILO's senior migrant specialist for the Asia Pacific.

"Mr. Ryder has assured the trade union heads when they met him today that he would raise the issue of review of migration policy, to have a consultative mechanism for reviewing the migration policy, and also take up the issue of extending the regularization process, particularly for those workers who have entered already into the NV process," he said.

About 350,000 migrant workers who entered the nationality verification process have not yet received their documents. Nonetheless, Thai authorities are threatening to deport them as well.

Baruah says although countries have a right to deport illegal migrants, they should be in line with international standards of human rights, ensure all past wages are paid and carry out the deportation at no charge to the worker.

"With regards to deportation, there should not be any mass, group deportation, that there should be a process of appeal should deportation take place," he said.

Migrant workers are a backbone of Thailand's construction, factories, fishing, and orchards, but most are undocumented and their illegal status leaves them vulnerable to abuse. Thailand's nationality verification program has sought to better protect migrants by working with neighboring countries to issue temporary passports so they can apply for work permits.

But the program is slow, expensive, and requires employer support. Activists say while well-intentioned, it puts employers in a position to keep migrants undocumented and brokers in a position to charge them months of wages for helping them become legal.

Baruah says the ILO would like to see Thai laws change to better protect migrant workers.

"The Job Seekers and Recruitment Act should be revised to include regulation of recruitment for inbound workers. Secondly, I think there should be effective complaint mechanisms."

The ILO director general met Friday morning with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who thanked the U.N. agency for promoting decent work in Thailand.

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