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Concerns that economic reforms in Burma will catalyse an exodus of millions of Burmese migrant workers from Thailand has prompted the region’s top diplomat, Surin Pitsuwan, to warn that Thai industry reliant on the cheap labour provided by its neighbour “could be in trouble”.
The ASEAN chief told staff of the Administrative Court of Thailand during a talk on Saturday that new technologies should be developed to lessen dependence on manual labour reports the Bangkok Post. The bloc is heading for full economic integration in 2015, but the fear is that migrant workers will begin returning to Burma once new industries open up and the creation of special economic zones (SEZs) gains momentum.
Migrants in Thailand make up about five percent of the county’s workforce, and provide a crucial pool of labour for low-skilled, often dangerous, industries such as fishing and construction. Up to three million people, or about 80 percent of the migrant population, are estimated to come from Burma, with the remainder largely from Laos and Cambodia.
Many occupy a quasi-legal existence in the Kingdom that creates problems when attempting to access healthcare, accident compensation and legal assistance, but Thailand has embarked on a scheme to have them registered and supplied with legitimate ID cards and passports. The deadline to complete the process is set for 14 June.
Still, however, industry is concerned that the once tempting lure of comparatively higher wages than offered in Burma is beginning to lose its potency. A scenario that sees Burmese migrants returning home would compound problems for business in Thailand, which suffered significantly from the loss of labourers who fled last year to escape Thailand’s worst flooding in more than half a century.
The Thai Public Relations Department warned last week that the country’s real estate sector “is facing severe labour shortages, causing delays in several housing construction plans” because many of the migrant workers who left last year have not returned.
But the doomsday feeling is not shared by Jackie Pollock, who runs the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP) Foundation. Pollock thinks its unlikely that there will be any significant change in the migrant make up of Thailand in the coming years.
“Migrants who are in Thailand are pretty well established there – the wages are not good but they’re still better than what you’ll find in Burma,” said Pollock during an interview with DVB.
Instead the group is predicting a new wave of internal migration in Burma. “If they’re setting up the economic zones on the border and if they’re increasing the industrial zones in Rangoon then there will be new people coming from the rural regions to those economic zones, and of course they’ll eventually probably cross into Thailand anyway.”
Whether the concerns over an exodus will fuel an overhaul of the often dire conditions that migrants in Thailand are forced to work in is questionable.
“I would have hoped that Surin would push for improvement in working conditions in Thailand as a means to keep migrants here but he didn’t,” said Pollock.
A report by the International Labour Organisation last year found that 84 percent of the 1,000 Thais surveyed felt that unauthorised migrants have broken the law. The majority also said that even authorised migrants “cannot expect the same working conditions as nationals when carrying out the same job”.
From time to time horrific accounts emerge of migrants being forced to live and work in squalid conditions: in April last year a police raid on a garment factory in Bangkok discovered 60 Burmese migrants who had been locked inside, some for up to eight months, and forced to work.