SAMUTSAKHON, THAILAND — Thailand this month threatened to deport more than a million migrant workers, most from Burma, if they failed to become documented by December 14th. The deadline came and went without mass deportations, but the pressure underscored flaws in the documentation program, known as nationality verification, and the abuse of migrant labor.
Hnin Hnin Win has worked in Thailand since she was 15 and has been cheated three times by past employers.
They charged her altogether $1,000 for work permits she never received and then terminated her employment.
Since November she works for Talay Thai, Thailand's largest seafood distributor and, though conditions are much better, she is still waiting on her paperwork.
"Without legal documentation, I feel afraid and worried, because I have to run or hide when police come here, otherwise I will be arrested," she said.
In Samutsakhon province, about 200,000 Burma migrants form the workforce for Thailand's seafood processing industry.
Talay Thai manager Suwatanachai Visetcharoen says only 10 percent of his workers are undocumented.
But, he argues illegal workers should not be held to strict deadlines for becoming documented because the industry depends on migrant labor. "Burmese labor or foreign labor is very important to the Thai seafood industry because most Thai laborers will not do this kind of work," he said.
There are two-and-a-half million migrant workers in Thailand, most from Burma, undocumented, and easy to exploit as they are at risk of being deported.
Forewoman Myint Myint Win says seven of her workers lack permits and have to bribe police about $10 a month to avoid arrest.
"We still need to worry about the police. However, my boss has good connections with them. Usually, the police inform my boss about possible police checks in advance by phone. Then, he asks the illegal workers to move or hide to another place," she said.
To prevent abuse, Thailand started a nationality verification program to get foreign workers documented.
But labor activists complain of excessive charges by brokers and requirements for employer backing and workers first returning home.
Migrant Worker Rights Network President Aung Kyaw says they offer legal support but the system itself needs to change. “Migrant workers accept that Nationality Verification is good for them. However, both governments cannot control the exploitation happening in the system," he said.
Labor activists say Thailand needs to simplify its migrant worker policy and enact laws that better protect the workers the country depends on.