Soe was barely 18 years old. He sat innocently beside me, dressed in a blue Burmese longyi, on the floor in a temple in Thailand’s Samut Sakhon Province. He possessed just a few bags of basic items consisting of clothing and property.
The Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) team had boiled packaged noodles with chilli for him and another 59 workers who abruptly arrived into the safety of the temple that evening. Soe ate eagerly after getting an inadequate provision of nutritious food in the past few weeks since he arrived in Thailand.
Both regular and irregular Burmese and Thai brokers drove around the temple grounds outside demanding the workers go back to them. The previous night these workers informed us they were to be moved to Chon Buri by these same agents after their irregular situation with a seafood-exporting company had been uncovered by MWRN and for which the authorities were informed.
Like many other migrant workers, Soe had sold whatever precious possessions he and his family had in the Burmese countryside to travel to Thailand to work. Not so much a dream life for him, but a necessity for people in his situation. He was promised 300 baht (US$8.50) a day, a good job with a great potential to quickly earn money to send back to his family, who were living in poverty. He had a passport, Burmese government worker card, a Thai visa and even a work permit in his name. All official.
He was the victim of a formal channel of migration called the MoU system (named after a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Thailand and neighbouring countries since 2002) to regularly bring workers into Thailand. The system had failed in that it obliged migrant workers to stick to an assigned workplace as indicated in the contract. Worse, the system grants the right to agencies without workplaces to accommodate the workers.
With such a system, those who want — or are forced to — to change workplaces, have no other choice but to throw away the official documents, despite their financial and psychological worth, and instead opt for the pink card, which enables them to change workplaces. However, holders of this semi-regular migrant worker card are at risk of being deprived of social security benefits. With the pink card, workers have limited freedom of movement and could face deportation. At MWRN, we too, frequently call this MoU system Thailand’s legalised system of human trafficking. It is often unregulated, and usually poorly managed and implemented.
In the case of Soe, he had been confusingly moved from one part of Thailand to another during the past weeks with a Burmese broker who entered Thailand on a tourist visa, and who himself seemed frustrated that he hadn’t yet found somewhere for the workers to go. All the workers were employed officially by an agency with no workplace but who had a Thai government quota to import workers.
Thailand may have moved forward in addressing some issues surrounding migration exploitation, at least at the policy level. Daily announcements by the government, Thailand’s overseas ambassadors and Thai companies proclaim times have changed. More fisherman are regularised, human trafficking is being tackled, and the future is less exploitative. Yes, there have been positive moves forward, but enforcement too often remains weak and confusing.
Of relevance today, the Thai government remains without any officially applied law or regulation to properly control abuse of this MoU system, the only regularised means for over 100,000 manual labourers from neighbouring countries to enter Thailand. Is this not a serious policy omission in the face of all these claims to be moving forward?
Whilst the costs of the MoU system on the Thai side have become more transparent since Thailand’s 2014 coup, there are allegations that some Thai officials at the borders still receive under-the-table payments for workers entering and leaving Thailand.
Sources inform me that corruption is still prevalent within concerned Thai ministries, albeit much improved. Often amounts in excess of 10,000 baht ($285) continues to be unlawfully deducted from worker’s salaries by Thai companies to recoup recruitment agency and related worker personal document costs.
On my travels to Burma and Cambodia, costs for passports, foreign worker cards, identity certification, applications, photographs and other allegedly necessary steps for a worker to absorb in coming legally to Thailand remained unclear. Many registered Burmese and Cambodian agencies merely act as a rubber stamp for the activities of informal broker networks who use their licences to place workers in Thailand.
Ministry of Labour sources informed me recently that they are drafting a new law to address the lack of regulation in the MoU system. They refused to share the draft or discuss the content, apart from saying it was a positive move forward. But such regulations are not yet in force, and they were not protecting Soe and his friends. They are not yet protecting hundreds of workers currently coming into Thailand on a daily basis.
Costs for the MoU system are just a few thousand baht, but multiple layers of bureaucracy, corrupt officials and exploitative agents and sub-agents result in unbearable costs for the poverty-stricken workers concerned. Employers generally bear no responsibility, with leading Thai export companies covering 0 percent of all fees, which fall only on workers.
The solution is quite simple. International labour conventions, codes of conduct like that of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), codes of conduct of major global corporations and standards such as SA8000 outline the way forward for Thailand and its employers, establishments and recruitment agencies.
What is required is clarity in formal costs involved in these migration channels; undermining ingrained corruption present in origin and destination countries; regularisation of all agents and actors involved; non-confiscation of personal identity documents; enforcement against unlawful salary deductions; clear contracts of employment in the language of the migrant workers; pre-recruitment information-sharing and pre-departure training; and establishment of transparent and widely publicised complaint mechanisms.
Most importantly, what should be required for and by seemingly ethical labour-intensive export companies in Thailand and buyers overseas, who are keen to prove they are not complicit in this exploitation, is zero recruitment fees placed on at-risk and often poverty-stricken migrant workers themselves should they enter through the MoU to work in Thailand.
Thailand has a long way to go in addressing the exploitation of migrants, shown by the failure to have in place regulations to address abuse still endemic in the MoU system. Thai employers often remain indifferent to debt bondage and abuse, wanting only to have workers arriving on time and free of charge, even with a willingness to unlawfully deduct worker salaries.
MWRN has petitioned the new Burmese government with this case, in the hope it can be a positive example of accountability and change.
We will ensure that Thai officials follow up on promises to hold all those involved in this exploitation accountable. And we eagerly wait for the government to take action to protect such workers in the future.
This commentary first appeared in The Bangkok Post. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.