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Thailand's New Migrant Labor Laws Spark Fear, Criticism

The Thai government is in the midst of implementing a new migrant labor policy, one that has seen a rise in police sweeps and raids on factories that employ workers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia. But human rights advocates say the arrests are creating fear among migrants, as many try to meet the new legal requirements.

On a recent Sunday morning at a school in central Bangkok, Burmese migrant workers gather to learn new skills such as languages and typing. It is also a place for them to hear the latest news. The biggest news for many is a recent crackdown on migrant labor, with raids on factories leading to the arrest and deportation of hundreds of workers.

The Thai government says the raids are part of its new policy of ensuring all migrants are registered and working legally. The government says, by doing so, it can better protect the rights of the two million migrants in the country.

Under the new policy, by last February migrants were to obtain proof of identity documents - such as passports - from their countries and then apply for new work permits. But tens of thousands who applied on time still have not gotten their paperwork completed. The government says as long as migrants can prove they have applied, they have until February 2012 to complete the process.

Migrants fear raids on workplaces even if their documents are fine, according to Myint Wai, a director with Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma.

"Even the legal worker fear because some are not finished work permit, not finished passport process. Many employers (are) afraid because some are using the illegal people in some factory. So there can be many things of the human rights violations. I have told already to the students you must have your work permit, original paper. If you have no paper or your document (is) a problem, don't come," Myint said.

But Thai officials are defending their actions. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said putiing in place a long-term migrant work policy is necessary.

"What we are trying to do of course is to make sure that we begin a systematic regulation of migrant workers in Thailand …. There is a well laid-out plan and there are structures that will be imposed to regulate that, " the spokesman said. "We do not want to leave the situation out of control like in the past."

Thailand has long been a magnet for migrant workers especially from its impoverished neighbors Burma, Cambodia and Laos. In addition, conflict in Burma has driven tens of thousands across the border.

Many are employed in agriculture, construction and manufacturing. Others are in service industries and work as household help. Rights groups have accused employers of exploiting many of them.

While Cambodia and Laos worked with Thai officials to issue passports in Thailand, Burma required its nationals to travel over the border. That meant Burmese migrants faced not only hundreds of dollars in extra expenses, but also physical risk at the hands of Burmese officials and criminals along the border.

The Karen Human Rights Group reports that many Burmese faced special taxes, forced labor, beatings, rape and murder when they crossed the border to get their paperwork.

More than 1 million migrant workers either failed to renew work permits or have not started the process at all, according to the migrant rights group, Human Rights Development Foundation. They are the target of the government's crackdown, along with the leaders of trafficking gangs who bring workers into Thailand.

The foundation reports as many as 3,000 migrants and six employers have been arrested. The opposition National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma estimates that up to 10,000 migrants have been deported.

Human Rights Development Foundation spokesman Andy Hall said while a labor policy is necessary, the present strategy is failing.

"The need for labor is there; it's there and the workers need to be in the country. But the system for managing that is a real failure at the moment. It's not been well thought out," said Hall. "And when you have system failures, you don't have good planning, you don't have sustainable management of migration, then you're going to see human rights abuses like we're seeing at the moment."

Rights groups say workers face police harassment if they are caught without all their documents. But employers often hold workers' passports and work permits. So workers are arrested for not having documents, and either pay a bribe, or are deported, only to be smuggled back into Thailand.

Jackie Pollock, from Migrant Assistant Project, said the new policy does little to improve conditions for migrants.

"This whole process is not providing any further protection or rights than the old system. So they are spending a lot of money and a lot of time trying to follow the system … but it's not providing any benefit to them," said Polock.

Thai officials rebuff the criticism and say the policy upholds both Thai law and human rights standards.

But Thailand faces great struggles to formalize its labor migrant policy. Among them: porous borders, poverty and political uncertainties in surrounding countries.