A little over a week ago, a young Myanmar friend of mine, let's call him Myo, found himself hiding in some farm fields, avoiding the Thai police while being smuggled from Mae Sot to Bangkok. Unlike many other undocumented migrants who get smuggled—and sometimes arrested—in this way, Myo had applied for a passport and work permit through Thailand's legal registration process. Myo's situation thus speaks to the dysfunction of Thailand's current migrant registration system. But this needs some explanation.
Over the past two decades, the district of Mae Sot on the Thai-Myanmar border has seen a rapid development boom. This growth has been based on a huge reserve of mostly undocumented migrants from neighbouring Myanmar. A lack of documentation for legal residence and work, combined with lax enforcement of labour law, has constrained the abilities of migrants in Mae Sot to claim their legal rights. As a result, working conditions in the area remain dreadful, with wages typically one quarter to one half the legal minimum.
A few years ago, however, it seemed things might begin to change. In 2009, the Thai and Myanmar governments collaborated to introduce “temporary passports” with official work permits for migrants in Thailand. Those holding these documents were to be granted legal freedom of movement and the right to seek employment across the country. In Mae Sot, the process only really picked up in late 2011, when the number of private passport companies and independent brokers exploded.
At that time, large numbers of migrants in Mae Sot took the opportunity to legally leave the border area for higher paying jobs in Bangkok and its surrounding provinces. The result was a sudden drop in workforce numbers at many Mae Sot factories. If the trend had continued, the decline in the local migrant population would have presumably driven up wages for those who remained.
Worried of an impending labour shortage, the Federation of Thai Industries (Tak Chapter) appealed to the Government of Tak Province to stem the outward flow of migrants. In response, Tak officials issued instructions to Mae Sot police in June 2012, barring migrants holding passports but not (or not yet) registered for work outside Mae Sot from freely travelling past the checkpoints on the main road out of town.
These restrictions were in violation of the Thai government's policy on the migrant passports. To date, however, the restrictions remain in place. To get around them, some migrants have been able to pay a 500 baht bribe to the police operating the affected checkpoints. For the most part, however, these restrictions continue to frustrate the efforts of Mae Sot-based migrants hoping to legally seek higher paying work in Bangkok, or elsewhere in Thailand.
The case of my friend Myo is illustrative. Earlier this year, Myo left his home town in Karen State to join the legions of Myanmar migrants working in Thailand. His port of entry was Mae Sot. His younger sister (who already works in Bangkok) had lined him up a retail job paying 300 baht per day near her own place of employment.
This was February 2013, during an extension period for migrant registration, which the Thai government had granted due to the large number of those yet to apply. The Thai and Myanmar governments had also reduced their respective charges, bringing the official cost of the passport and work permit down to less than 5,000 baht.
The policy at this time was for the Mae Sot Department of Employment to receive and process the applications. However, many migrants who tried to apply through this office were told their applications lacked certain documents or pieces of information, and they were strongly encouraged to apply with a private passport company.
Thus, like most migrants in Mae Sot, Myo submitted his application through a private company. He was charged 11,000 baht. That's more than twice the official cost, but still not as much as what less scrupulous brokers are demanding.
After waiting over two months, the passport company informed Myo that Mae Sot authorities would not allow the distribution within Mae Sot of work permits registered with employers elsewhere in Thailand. The company assured Myo that they had arranged safe travel for him and the other applicants to collect their documents in Bangkok. However, since they would be travelling undocumented, they all needed to pay an additional 500 baht “police fee” along with travel expenses.
This seemed odd to both of us. After all, if Myo had applied through the legal process, why did he need to be illegally smuggled to collect documentation for legal residence and work in Thailand.
In any case, Myo soon left for Bangkok. But he didn't get very far. The passport company drove him and 60 or so other migrants to a village outside Mae Sot where they were put in an empty house and told to wait, as it was not yet conducive to travel. After waiting two days, these migrants were taken down a back road, stopped by police and ordered back to town. The “police fee” was apparently insufficient.
A few days later, they tried again. This time, while waiting at the same village as before, the migrants were suddenly told the police had been tipped off and they (the migrants) needed to immediately flee and hide in the nearby fields, which they did. When things settled, they all returned to Mae Sot, where, for the moment, my friend Myo remains stuck. The passport company is now saying they may no longer be able to arrange work permits registered for employment outside Mae Sot.
While these restrictions on the travel of migrants out of Mae Sot remain in place, there are several implications that deserve consideration. The first is that thousands of migrants who want to legally leave Mae Sot continue to be denied freedom of movement to access higher paying work elsewhere in Thailand. Second, these restrictions serve as an important means of suppressing wages in Mae Sot, by maintaining the area's pool of reserve labour. Many of those planning to stay in Mae Sot have thus opted not to apply for passports, remaining instead in a precarious situation as undocumented migrants, since they can either not afford this documentation or else they see little benefit to it in terms of higher wages. Third, human smuggling from Mae Sot to Bangkok continues despite the formal existence of legal alternatives. The going rate for undocumented migrants to get smuggled from Mae Sot to Bangkok is 15,000 baht (or 8,000 baht if you're willing to walk the first three days). The smuggling business (to say nothing of trafficking) is only viable because of barriers to above ground alternatives.
For the moment, it remains unclear how the situation will develop. Employers in Mae Sot do not appear keen to pay the legal minimum wage or to follow Thailand's labour law more generally. At the same time, there are employment opportunities for migrants in Central Thailand paying the legal minimum, or at least closer to it than what is offered in Mae Sot. Migrants will therefore continue to seek ways out of Mae Sot, regardless of the restrictions in place. What these restrictions do, however, is increase the viability of far more precarious alternatives. The resulting situation is a far cry from the goal of regularising migration, which these passports were meant to achieve.
Stephen Campbell is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, currently based in Mae Sot.