INTERVIEW - December 14 marks the deadline for migrant Burmese in Thailand to register at National Verification centers. But how ominous is the date and what are the prospects for Burmese migrant workers in Thailand now that Burma is supposedly opening up?
Mizzima spoke to Jackie Pollock, the Director of the MAP Foundation, an NGO that has played a leading role in supporting migrant workers’ rights in Thailand since 1996.
Q: What is the importance for Burmese (and other) migrants in registering at National Verification (NV) Centers ahead of the December 14 deadline?
|A Burmese construction worker in Chiang Mai. There are more than 2 million labor migrants in Thailand, mostly from neighboring Burma. (Photo: Steve Sandford / IRIN)|
There are another 1 – 2 million migrants in Thailand who remain completely undocumented. After December 14th, any migrant who previously registered for a migrant worker card will return to an undocumented status. All undocumented migrants will be liable to deportation.
The Thai government is telling them to go home and enter the MOU process in Burma by which they can apply for a passport and a job through a recruiting agency in Burma and come back legally. However, migrants report that this process can take anywhere between 2 weeks and 3 months, during which time the migrants are stuck on the border with no income. And Thai businesses or families are stuck with no workers.
Q: Even after a migrant registers, he or she is still often subject to arrest/ deportation for “illegal entry”. Is registering worth it? Or are Burmese migrants in Thailand basically in the same boat whether or not they register?
A: Migrants who hold a temporary passport cannot be arrested or deported for illegal entry. They can however be fined if they are working with a different employer to the employer named on their work permit, or if they are working in a different job.
Migrants holding the migrant workers cards (from the amnesties) were given permission to stay for a limited period, usually one year, while awaiting deportation.
According to a study, “RegularRights” by MAP Foundation, which is to be officially launched on December 18th, the protection from arrest, extortion, and deportation by immigration and police is one of the main benefits of obtaining the temporary passport.
Q: What changes to the current NV regulations would you advocate changing?
A: We advocate for all migrants to be able to enter the NV process, regardless of their previous migration status and for the process to be open-ended to respond to the real situation of another 2 million undocumented migrants.
To encourage migrants to enter these processes they need to be made cheaper and easier. The Thai government is saying that the NV centers will be closed down on December 14th, but we recommend that the centers remain open and continue to be used to process migrants. These centers could coordinate with the embassy in Bangkok to issue passports to migrants.
In addition, becoming documented must be worth a migrant’s time. According to previous administrations in Thailand, all those defined as workers under the Labour Protection Act are entitled to minimum wage, regardless of their legal status. As we know they rarely receive it, but becoming documented must be a 100 percent guarantee that they receive minimum wage and have a safe working environment.
The rule—that with a passport you can only work for 4 years and then have to leave Thailand for 3 years—must be changed. Migrants have invested around 15,000 baht [US $500] in the documentation; they need to be able to work longer to make money … not just to live.
Restrictions on migrants changing employers should be lifted, and migrants who do get permission to change employers should be given longer than 7 days [maximum period of time allowed from leaving one employer and starting work with another], which in effect forces them to take the first employer whatever the conditions.
Q: What are the problems facing migrant workers in terms of minimum wages and benefits?
A: Even the lowest wages in Thailand are better than in Burma. And generally there are no employment opportunities for migrants in Burma, especially in the ethnic areas, so they do not have the choice of going home.
In terms of benefits, employers of migrants with temporary passports are meant to enter the migrants into the social security system of Thailand (free health care, paid maternity leave, compensation in case of accident, unemployment benefits, and pensions) but so far almost none have.
But until it is clear how migrants would access some of the benefits (i.e., pensions or unemployment—as they are only allowed to be unemployed 7 days—i.e., only 7 days to change employers) then there is not a great push for social security.
But in the future, with ASEAN Integration, this could become more realistic, with systems that cross borders or that are portable.
Q: What would you say is the average Thai employers’ opinion about the NV process?
A: I can’t really answer this question, but I think we must question the current policy to deport migrants on December 14th in relation to the implementation of the new minimum wage, 300 baht in all provinces of Thailand.
By stopping the documentation of migrants while only around 1million migrants are documented, Thailand could be seen to be encouraging the employment of undocumented migrants.
In the meeting between the Thai government and the Burmese government on Nov 26th, the Thai government said that only legal migrants would receive the minimum wage, which is a different interpretation of the Labour Protection Act to previous administrations. But by saying this, it seems to provide a loophole to employers who do not want to pay minimum wage, i.e.: employ undocumented workers.
It is odd that the employers association has not been seen to petition the government to extend the period. Usually before every threat of deportations they manage to persuade the government to extend for another year. This time they have been very quiet; surely if one third of their workers are deported it is going to seriously affect their business … or will they just continue to employ undocumented workers?
*In fact, at the time of press, such a petition may be in process. See: http://www.bangkokpost.co.th/business/economics/326065/migrant-deadline-delay-sought
Q: Representatives of Burma’s Labor Ministry visited Thailand this week for further negotiations about migrant labor. What results do you expect from this meeting?
A: We hope that the Ministries of both countries will offer some solutions, that the Thai ministry will offer to recommend an extension or an open-ended registration for migrants to the Cabinet, and that the Burmese Ministry will offer to work with their Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide comprehensive consular services for migrants who have paid for a passport and therefore such services.
But we do not know what to expect. All of the past threats of deportation and the “this is the last time you can register” have always been extended (since 1996) but it has always been a unilateral decision.
This is the first time that the country of origin is playing a role and so there are new rules to the game that no one is quite sure of. All we know is that for migrant workers it is their lives, their livelihoods, their security that is at stake, and it is certainly not a game.
Q: How do rights and conditions compare to, say, 10 years ago in Thailand for migrant workers?
A: In the report, “From Our Eyes” published by the Mekong Migration Network, 15 migrants told their stories of the last 10 years in Thailand and how policies had impacted on their lives. The greatest improvements were access to health care and access to education for migrant children. This has greatly improved over the last 10 years, although again this administration told the Burmese government that only children of documented migrants could go to school, despite the fact that the July 2005 policy stated that ALL children could access education.
The RegularRights study found that documentation had not made any significant impact on working conditions, and health and safety standards were still extremely poor for many migrant workers.
Q: Thailand has recently more widely acknowledged the need for migrants, particularly from Burma, albeit grudgingly in some cases. What measures can be taken to more effectively address long-term migration?
A: Firstly, open-ended documentation processes, particularly in the light of changes in Burma. In the next few years, the movement of migrants from Burma to Thailand will decrease (if improvements continue) and Thailand will need systems in place which encourage migrants to work here.