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Thailand Looks to Neighbors for Better Management of Illegal Labor

Thailand hopes to better manage undocumented migrant labor by stepping up cooperation with its neighbors, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The moves also are aimed at reducing human rights abuses of migrant workers.

Thailand, which has for years relied on illegal migrant workers to meet labor shortfalls, plans to create a program to register migrants, and make sure they have proper documentation.

Thapabutr Jamasevi is the deputy permanent secretary at Thailand's Ministry of Labor. He says the plan is prompted by concerns about having a large mobile population living illegally in the country. "During the last four to five years there's been a large influx of undocumented workers from neighboring countries," he said. "We don't know where they are so it may have a negative impact on our national security, social, economics and human rights. So we decided to legalize them."

Since the late 1980's, Thailand has relied on cheap labor from poor neighboring countries - primarily Cambodia, Laos and Burma, to help power its economic growth. Some enter the country legally, but hundreds of thousands work illegally.

A temporary amnesty offered by the Thai government earlier this year led to one-point-two million foreign workers - the majority from Burma - being registered.

Hugh Oldhams, who heads the International Labor Organization Regional Office for Asia and Pacific, said recently that better management of migrant labor is needed as the region's economies became more integrated. "Migration serves as a force for growth and development; at the same time we're looking for ways to protect migrant workers from exploitation and abuse," stated Mr. Oldhams. "This requires sound migration management."

Thailand has signed agreements with Laos, Cambodia and Burma to get some control over migrant flows. Each country is examining options for providing migrants with special documentation and rights.

But Piyasiri Wickramasekara, a migration specialist with the International Labor Organization in Geneva, says the program will fail unless governments devote enough resources to it. "Thailand has mentioned it will give equal protection to migrant workers under the new scheme," he said. "But there should be adequate infrastructure - they should have adequate labor inspection services to go to these work places to see whether there is the same conditions."

Malaysia also has more than million undocumented workers from neighboring countries - mostly Indonesia and the Philippines. The Malaysian government has been internationally criticized for its strategy of mass expulsions of illegal laborers.

The New York group Human Rights Watch has called on the Malaysian government to rescind plans to allow members of volunteer security associations to conduct immigration raids and arrests. Human Rights Watch says the plan to arrest and deport illegal migrants, which begins in January, may lead to rights abuses.

In 2002, Malaysia expelled thousands of illegal workers, but dozens of them perished from dehydration and illness while being detained in transit areas.

Mr. Wickramasekara says such strategies breach international practices and law. "The ILO instruments, the U.N. [United Nations] human rights instruments are very clear - there should be no mass deportations because workers in irregular status also have certain rights," he said. "There should be no collective expulsions and they should be entitled to due process of law."

There is a dark side to the region's illegal migration. Abuse has been widespread in Thailand, with workers forced into the sex industry or sweatshop labor. Migrants have been murdered, raped and cheated of their pay.

In 2002, Thai police investigated the murder of dozens of Burmese - including children - in incidents linked with illegal labor and factories or plantations near the Burmese border.

Later in the year, police uncovered the charred remains of six Burmese migrant workers in the western province of Tak. Witnesses said the men had been beaten before being shot.

Thai police have also been accused of abusing Burmese immigrants, arresting them outside factories and sexually assaulting Burmese women being held for deportation.

Thailand's National Human Rights Commissioner, Pradit Charoenthaitavee, says without legal protection the abuses will continue. "Due to the lack of legal protection the migrant workers suffer many injustices," he said. "Example of this is non-payment of service rendered, restriction on freedom of movement, deprivation of rest and leisure time and the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being."

Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia are hoping their joint efforts will curtail the abuse.

But workers' advocates stress that success will require effective implementation and government support to ensure migrant workers' rights are upheld to avoid further abuse.