As migrant workers flee Thailand, aid group calls on Myanmar to intervene

Local authorities, aid organizations and town elders welcome the returning workers in Kawthaung on July 1. (Photo – Htoo Chit) Local authorities, aid organizations and town elders welcome the returning workers in Kawthaung on July 1. (Photo – Htoo Chit)

Amid an exodus sparked by tough new labor regulations, an organization assiting migrant workers has called on Thailand to halt arrests and said Myanmar must weigh in to help secure safe passage for its nationals.

Over a five-day period between June 23 to 28 over 60,000 migrant workers fled, according to the Thai Immigration Bureau. The number has continued to climb, with the bulk of the returnees headed to Myanmar.

On June 30, over 3,6000 workers reportedly crossed into Myanmar via the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border.

The Thai-based Foundation for Education and Development (FED) said many undocumented workers have gone into hiding since the June 20 labor law announcement.

“Although the Thai authorities informed us that they are not making any arrests at the moment, we have received reports about the police arresting [the workers] in isolated areas. I heard that they are arresting the workers in Mae Sot and sending them to Myawaddy. Workers who were arrested in Phuket have been sent to the immigration jail in Ranong. Our team is now in Ranong to assist them,” said Ko Htoo Chit, director of FED.  

He added that Myanmar officials should negotiate with their Thai counterparts to ensure the workers can return home with dignity.

Officially, between 2 and 4 million migrant workers are employed in Thailand, forming the country's low-skilled, economic backbone. But rights activists say the number, especially of undocumented workers, is much higher.

The Thai junta has rolled out several new visa and permit schemes since it came to power in 2014 and promised to regulate the infamously murky industry. Periodic crackdowns have sent many homeward, while labor activists have slammed the government's regularization attempts as leading to arbitrary overhauls and facilitating extortiate brokers' fees.

According to the new labor regulations, workers who cannot show their permit during an inspection will be fined 10,000 baht. If the employer or job on the work permit is incorrect, the workers will be fined 100,000 baht, while employers who hire unregistered workers or those with a permit from another employer will face a fine between 400,000 and 800,000 baht.

In an attempt to stem the tide of the exodus and reduce the panic, Thailand announced a 120-day grace period before the fines can take effect.