This week is the final deadline for a migrant worker registration program in Thailand that logs foreign workers and the businesses that employ them.
The program is aimed at cracking down on human trafficking gangs that make a lucrative profit from foreign workers and employers who take advantage of them.
Nai is a 25-year-old Burmese man who came to Thailand six years ago to try to pay off debts from a failed shrimp business in southern Burma.
Like many other Burmese, he chose a criminal gang to help him find work. Such gangs traffic thousands of Burmese into jobs in factories, agriculture labor, domestic help or as sex workers.
Nai paid the agents to place him in a Thai factory. The agents loaned him about $300 for additional up-front costs, a loan that he says had to be repaid within months at two or three times the original value.
Nai escaped and is now one of over 300,000 Burmese working in the seafood industry in Samut Sakon province on the outskirts of Bangkok. Burmese language signs in the market are testament to the Burmese in the community.
The Thai government says about one million migrant workers have registered with the government program since it began in June. The main registration deadline was in July, but officials extended the deadline for workers in the fishing industry until Saturday.
After the deadline passes, employers could be fined for hiring unregistered workers. And illegal workers could also face fines or jail.
A U.S. State Department report on trafficking in persons released this year classified Thailand in the second tier category of counties linked to human trafficking, alongside Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Russia and Zambia.
The United Nations says some 2.5 million people from 127 countries are trafficked into more than 130 countries each year. The International Labor Organization estimates human trafficking is worth more than $30 billion a year to criminal gangs.
More cooperation needed
Joy Ezeilo, the U.N. special reporter on human trafficking, is visiting Thailand this week to assess efforts to deal with illegal migration and trafficked persons. She says that better international cooperation is required to combat trafficking, but the controversial nature of the issue can make that difficult.
“Some of these things are becoming very unfortunately highly politicized in many countries of the world and that is also creating tension and all kinds of xenophobic approaches to issues of migrants," Ezeilo says. "We should also know that migration contributes to development both in the receiving country and also the country where they come from, so we have to look at this in a broader perspective.”
Ezeilo is meeting with government officials, non-government and migrant worker groups to discuss the migrant registration program and other issues.
Sompong Srakraew, director of the Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation in Thailand, says although the Thai government has taken steps to reduce the hardships faced by illegal workers, it still falls short of goals set by non-government groups.
“Last two years, [the] Thai government has been concerned about child labor also and the ministry of labor has been working closely with the International Labor Organization for serving child labor," Sompong says. "But, at the same time, ministry of labor try to deny having the child labor [in factories]. But the situation and information is different [between] Thai government and NGO [non-governmental organization] like me.”
Migrant labor groups are welcoming Ezeilo’s visit but say the problem is regional and attention needs also to focus on the criminal gangs that oversee the regional trade.