Friday’s deadline for the legal registration of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand will probably not be extended and more than 1 million workers now face an uncertain future in which they could be deported or fall victim to corruption and abuse, a labor rights advocate warned.
Andy Hall, a migration expert at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, said Thailand is determined to implement its Dec.14 deadline, after which migrant workers can no longer complete a procedure to verify their nationality and obtain a Thai work permit.
“It seems that it’s going ahead,” he said on Thursday evening, adding that Thailand’s National Security Council had prevailed on the Thai government not to extend the deadline. In recent years, the government had extended the closing date several times.
After the deadline passes workers need to go to Burma to obtain a passport and then re-enter Thailand to apply for a work permit.
Hall warned this process exposes workers to exploitation and abuse, as they have to travel to border areas to pay Burmese recruitment agencies large sums of money to obtain a passport and pay Thai officials to obtain a permit.
If a worker wants to get a Burmese passport quickly it would cost about US $600, he said, adding that these high costs meant many workers have to loan money from their employers, effectively forcing them into debt bondage.
“The process of debt bondage has already started” as large groups of Burmese workers were heading for border crossings such as Mae Sot, Hall said. “It’s going to get worse as the deadline passes.”
Workers who do not go through this process can only go underground and work illegally as unregistered workers, which also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by Thai employers or authorities, he added.
Hall said the situation was causing huge problems for workers and for Thai businesses that depend on the cheap labor of the roughly 2.5 million Burmese workers in Thailand. About 1.3 million of them have to go to Burma to register after Friday, or face deportation.
“This situation is not good for anyone… it’s only good for corrupt officials and brokers,” Hall added.
Burma had requested Thailand in a bilateral meeting on Nov. 26 to extend the deadline, but Thailand declined.
Labor rights organizations, such as the Thailand-based Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) and Thailand’s State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation, are very worried about the migrant workers’ situation that is likely to occur.
On Thursday, the groups sent an open letter to General Secretary of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Guy Rider, asking him to address the issue when he meets with the Thai government during his visit to Bangkok on Friday.
“On Dec. 14, over 1.5 million undocumented worker and registered migrant workers who did not complete the expensive and untransparent process [of workers’ registration] … will become ‘illegal’ workers,” the letter said, adding that the groups were “deeply concerned” about this situation.
“It’s very important that the head of the ILO addresses this issue. He is visiting Thailand on the eve of a very serious crackdown on migrant workers,” said Hall, who also signed the letter.
The ILO could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Earlier this week, MRWN also met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to appeal for her support in getting the Thai deadline extended, but it remains unclear if she plans to help.
Most Burmese workers are employed as cheap laborers in the Thai fishery, garment and construction industries, or work as domestic servants.