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Tens of thousands of new migrants from Myanmar have flooded into Thailand in recent weeks because of a new worker registration scheme launched on June 30, a labour rights network says.
The new arrivals hope that two-month registration cards issued under the program will make them eligible for temporary passports and work permits under a bilateral program, U Aung Kyaw, president of the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), told The Myanmar Times last week.
The hundreds of thousands of unregistered migrant workers in Thailand have been warned to sign up for the program by the end of July or potentially face deportation, fines and jail sentences. The program has been broadly welcomed by rights groups, including MWRN, although there are concerns it could exacerbate exploitation by brokers.
“I’d say since the scheme was launched two weeks ago an additional 10,000 Myanmar unregistered workers have arrived here in Samut Sakhon alone,” U Aung Kyaw said in his office in the port town outside Bangkok, where about 200,000 migrants work in seafood processing factories, as well as on fishing boats and construction sites.
About 60,000 of those were unregistered before the scheme was launched, he said.
U Aung Kyaw said a number of other provinces have experienced a similar influx of Myanmar nationals keen to acquire legal status in Thailand, which will allow them to travel freely around the country, give them a degree of legal protection and entitle them to higher wages.
Although only those who were in Thailand as of June 30 are officially eligible, new arrivals are also being registered; The Myanmar Times met one woman at a registration office who had just received a card despite only have arrived in Thailand two days earlier.
The strong demand for documentation is also being driven, in part, by fears of what it could entail for those who fail to comply.
“The military government has come in and tried to sort out 21 provinces, but it is not certain [what will happen to those who remain unregistered after the deadline]. There might be some kind of military action,” U Aung Kyaw said.
Shortly after Thailand’s military took control of the country on May 22, hundreds of thousands of migrants – the majority from Cambodia – fled the country because of fears of a clampdown on illegal workers.
In mid-June, Thailand, which has been subject to a number of high-profile slavery scandals, was finally downgraded to the lowest ranking in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report.
But Thailand’s economy is heavily reliant on migrant workers, who are mostly from Myanmar, and in late June the junta reestablished a registration process for foreign workers. An earlier program had lapsed because of the country’s political crisis.
The new registration scheme was launched initially in Samut Sakhon and then spread to other areas of the country.
While it has once again enabled workers to register, U Aung Kyaw said the process has a number of shortcomings, including its failure to verify the age of workers. Another loophole that has led to profiteering enables any Thai person, regardless of whether they own a business, to sponsor a migrant worker’s application.
“That means someone just needs to find a Thai person to sign for them, so now there are so many people acting as brokers. The registration card should only cost 1350 baht [US$42], but many people are having to pay 3000 or 4000 [$94 to $125],” he said.
U Aung Kyaw said some brokers could charge as much as 16,000 baht ($502) to bring workers into the country, with daily salaries for migrant workers averaging about 200 baht ($6), though the legal minimum wage is 300 baht ($9).
“I think the military government does want to make things better for migrant workers, but the problem is that they don’t necessarily know how to do it properly,” he said, adding that this “could actually make things worse than before”, particularly on child labour.
With people continuing to flood over the border into Thailand with the help of brokers and corrupt officials, the problem of illegal workers is unlikely to be resolved soon. “It’s hard to see how they can eliminate illegal migrants if they can’t control the borders,” he said.