Migrants are not Commodities-Thailand has a love-hate relationship with migrant workers

Nurul Islam
February 19, 2008
Since the December elections in Thailand, much of the country’s politics have been in limbo until a new government takes power. Of all the policies awaiting review, the new Thai government would be wise to prioritize a policy concerning the 2 million migrant workers.Are migrant workers a real threat to the national security of Thailand? Or are they contributing to the economic growth of the country, especially in border areas that were long ago left behind while the rest of the nation developed?

The International Labor Office’s recent report, “Thailand: Economic Contribution of Migrant Workers” by Prof Philip Martin, an expert on international migration from the University of California at Davis, stated: “The Thai labor force of 36 million in 2007 included about 5 percent or 1.8 million migrants.” The report said that last year, migrant workers contributed US $2 billion to the Thai gross domestic product, a figure nearly three times higher than in 1995. It was a clear indication of Thailand’s growing dependency on migrant labor in the 21st century.

However, several articles regarding the migrant worker issue soon surfaced in the Thai media, depicting migrants—over 80 percent of whom are from Burma—as criminals, disease carriers and drug traffickers.

On the other hand, The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Bangkok, ran a feature story titled “Foreign Workers Needed but Alienated” on November 26, 2007. The article shed light on the work of researcher Kulachada Chaipipat who has studied some 1,000 stories of migrant workers appearing in 13 Thai newspapers between 2004 and 2006. Her three-year research found that the local media excessively used negative words, portraying Burmese migrant workers as “unlawful,” “dangerous” and “fearful aliens.”

Even a newborn baby has become a threat to the national security of Thailand in the eyes of certain high-ranking government officials. In November 2007, following a Thai newspaper report that 2,000 migrant babies were born every month in the kingdom, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin called for tighter security measures. In fact, according to the Labor Rights Promotion Network, a Thai NGO, the figure is just 300 babies a month.

It seems that what some Thai authorities want from the migrants is just their labor, not their babies.

Under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand, for the first time in 2004, introduced a registration policy to legalize illegal migrant workers from its three neighboring countries—Burma, Cambodia and Laos. The registration policy provoked a debate in the Thai government due to its apparent flexibility towards migrants.

The registration policy was, in fact, aimed at calculating the population of the illegal migrants living in the country and driving those in the inner demographic areas back to the border zones.

After 2004, the number of registered migrants sharply declined. In 2007, only 600,000 migrant workers from the three countries registered; just half the number that registered in 2004.

Thailand also introduced a Memorandum of Understanding with its three neighbors in June 2003. The Burmese military government was invited to open temporary passport issuing offices in three major border towns—Myawaddy, Tachilek and Kawthaung—in late 2006.

However, the process of issuing passports to Burmese migrants was never implemented. Neither of the governments involved has publicly commented on why the process was derailed.

One major concern for Burmese migrant workers was that the military authorities would collect “taxes” from their families inside Burma if the bilateral agreement were enforced. There were further concerns over the terms of employment—two years, followed by an extension—a maximum of four years stay in Thailand, after which time, a Burmese worker would be deported with no right to return to Thailand for three years.

Although the agreement intended to eliminate illegal border crossings and the trafficking of workers, it couldn’t hit the target because of the very simple law of supply and demand. The economic dynamics dictated that businesses would import migrant workers when they were needed and kick them out when they were not.

The situation of the migrant worker is like being in a tug-of-war between the strict regulations of government and the capitalist motives behind their exploitation.

Thailand’s incoming government should adopt a more realistic and humanity-based policy on migrant workers. It must reject policies that reflect only the benefits to the governments involved.

Migrant workers are human beings after all, not commodities.

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