BANGKOK— Labor activists in Thailand are welcoming the government's extension of a deadline for close to two million undocumented migrant workers to become legal. The illegal migrants now have four additional months to register through a new simplified process. But, activists say the new rules still allow room for exploiting foreign workers mainly from Burma, Cambodia and Laos.
Thailand this week announced a four-month extension on a deadline for undocumented foreign workers to become registered.
The extension comes after a month of wrangling over a December 14 deadline and threats of mass deportation for over a million workers.
Thailand has an estimated 2.5 million migrant workers, mostly from Burma, but less than a million met the deadline to get their permits.
Thai authorities threatened to deport the remaining migrants, including tens of thousands whose paperwork was still being processed.
The threats were never enforced and on Tuesday Thai media reports said a deal was reached to extend the deadline to April 14 and allow all undocumented workers to participate.
Thai authorities have released few details, but labor activists say the registration process will be streamlined with new centers opened to speed up documentation.
Andy Hall, who researches migration at Thailand's Mahidol University, says the new policy is a significant reversal.
"It sounds like it's going to be a very simple one-stop service. And, I mean, what's important now is to ensure that this process is transparent, it's quick, and also it's not monopolized by brokers or corrupt agents," Hall said.
About 80 percent of migrant workers in Thailand are from Burma. They work in factories, construction and the seafood industry, but most are undocumented and subject to exploitation.
Thailand established a nationality verification program, in cooperation with its neighbors, to legalize foreign workers and reduce labor abuses.
But, activists say the process was cumbersome, expensive and slow. Requirements for migrants to get employer support and to first return home allowed unscrupulous bosses and brokers to extract high fees or engage in human trafficking and forced labor.
Jackie Pollock, director of the Migrant Assistance Program in Thailand, says the new policy, while simpler, still requires migrants to get support from Thai employers. Pollock says not all want to pay the new legal minimum wage of 300 baht, or $10, per day.
"So, certainly there will be many employers who won't take steps to go for this process as they would prefer to pay less than the minimum wage. And, I presume that will be most of the employers in Mae Sot," Pollock noted. "Yesterday, at a meeting with migrant workers in Mae Sot I asked them what the minimum wage was here and they all said 60 baht."
Thailand raised the minimum wage on January 1 but it is not clear how well it is being enforced.
The nationality verification process used to cost foreign workers up to several months wages.
Fees for the new process have not been announced but Hall says they are expected to range up to $400 per applicant, which many cannot easily afford.
"For workers who are…have so many financial difficulties like the workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao, it's very unfair to charge these inflated prices," Hall said. "And, essentially, these inflated prices come from multiple levels of layers of corruption amongst officials all taking their bit of the cake. So, I think that really needs to be eliminated for the process to be successful."
Hall says the change in policy came about as a result of pressure from Burma authorities to regularize their workers.
In a rare news briefing Friday, Burmese Ambassador to Thailand Tin Win told journalists in Bangkok they were working with Thai authorities to eliminate abuses. He said they wanted to reduce costs, the role of brokers, and crack down on employers who refuse to register workers.
He says in the next month they will determine the number of migrant workers who need to do the registration. Then, they will issue temporary passports for them within three months at 10 "One Stop Service Centers." He says the Thai side will then issue them stay-of-permit visas.
Pollock says Thailand is also under pressure from the United States to show it is doing more to prevent labor abuses and human trafficking.
"As we know that the Trafficking in Persons Report comes out in June. And, if Thailand is still on the watch list then they can face sanctions. So they're quite desperate to make sure that doesn't happen. So, putting in policies which certainly do help reduce trafficking, would be in the interest of Thailand."
Thailand extended the migrant worker registration deadline several times, but over a million were not willing or not able to enter the process.
While the new policy is a welcome step forward, Pollock says, the four-month extension is still not enough time to register up to two million foreign workers.
The MAP Foundation advocates for an open-ended registration period. Otherwise, she says Thai authorities are likely to repeat threats of mass deportations and negotiations on yet another extension.
Burma's ambassador confirmed to journalists Friday if they are not able to finish processing all the workers by April, they will push Thai authorities for another extension.