Thailand is threatening to deport more than a million migrant workers, most of them from Burma, if they do not complete required documentation by a December 14 deadline. Rights groups say the nationality verification process, while aimed at providing legal protection, is being exploited by corrupt officials, brokers and employers to further abuse vulnerable migrants.
Thai authorities in charge of regulating migrant labor had pushed back previous deadlines for foreign workers to become documented.
The employment department at the Ministry of Labor, however, is standing firm on a Friday deadline that, if enforced, could see one million or more migrants facing deportation.
Jackie Pollock directs the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Program
. She said that Thailand raising the nation's minimum wage to about $10 a day beginning in January likely is hardening authorities' attitudes.
"I think that they don't want to encourage migrants to come to Thailand to get the minimum wage. So, I think they're afraid that there will be a new influx of migrants because the minimum wage in Thailand is so much higher than anywhere it is in Burma," said Pollock. "So, I think they're trying to look strict and severe on this issue and to pressure migrants to go back to their home countries to get documents and then only come in to the country legally."
There are an estimated 2.5 million migrant workers in Thailand. About 80 percent of them are from Burma and because of costs, corruption and porous borders, most are undocumented.
They work in factories, orchards, fishing and construction, but their illegal status leaves them vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employers, corrupt police and officials.
Nationality verification program
Thailand has sought to remedy their situation by working with neighboring countries on a nationality verification program, whereby they get temporary passports so they can easily renew work permits.
So far, about 900,000 have entered the program. But about 350,000 of those still are waiting for their documents, while more than a million either are unwilling or unable, and never started.
Migrant worker rights activists say the program is well-intentioned, but poor planning has turned it into a systematic corruption scam.
Andy Hall, a migrant specialist at Mahidol University's Migration Center, said brokers charge $600 or more to process the paperwork, costing months' worth of wages.
"So, whereas the migrants become legal through this process, the costs are very exorbitant," said Hall. "And, what we've seen is, we've seen a shift from like this informal corruption by police officers, who are shaking down workers, immigration officials and labor officials, who are taking money from workers. We've seen a shift from that to this irregulated broker system whereby brokers who are in charge of national verification process, who are in charge of issuing passports, are now getting money through these vulnerable migrants through these other means."
Vulnerable to abuse
Hall said many migrant workers are forced to borrow the money from their employers, leaving them in debt bondage amounting to forced labor.
The program also requires migrant workers to get support from their employers. Hall said some employers simply refuse because they prefer to keep workers unregistered, illegal, and therefore easier to exploit.
"There's too many employers in Thailand who don't want their workers regulated. They don't want their workers being issued passports because passports bring confidence, it brings freedom of movement, it brings a flexibility to the workers and a humanity to the workers that they never had before," said Hall.
Despite the abuses, there have been tangible benefits from nationality verification for migrant workers who complete the process. Documented workers get better access to education, health care, and the flexibility to live outside the workplace.
Pollock said a recent Migrant Assistance Program survey shows, however, that conditions at the workplace, regardless of documentation, have not improved.
"Of the workers that we interviewed - 500 workers - only 30 percent of the documented workers said that there was fire protection equipment in their factories and none of them had been trained in what to do in case of fire," she said.
Securing migrant workers
Pollock said construction sites with migrant workers are easy to spot because, unlike their Thai counterparts, the migrants often do not get hard hats or proper shoes, and work on rickety scaffolding.
The last time Thailand attempted mass deportations of undocumented workers was during the late 1990s financial crisis. Re-registration of migrant workers quickly resumed, though, after complaints from Thai employers.
Pollock said it would be a surprise if authorities actually followed through with their threats this time. She said Thailand needs migrant workers and the nationality verification process would be slow.
"So, it's a minimum of three weeks and if there's hundreds of thousands of migrants doing it, obviously it's going to take several months," she said. "So, during that time, factories would close, fruits in the orchards would not be picked, the fish in the sea would not be caught. It would be a disaster for the Thai economy."
Thai authorities say, if necessary, they can rely on direct government-to-government agreements to secure migrant workers.