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Burma, Thailand agree to collaborate on migrant worker fiasco

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, right, and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan greet government officers before a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok on 4 January 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand and Burma have agreed to set up a joint working committee to solve labour problems arising from confusion over Thailand’s tough new migrant worker rules.

Thai Labour Minister Gen Sirichai Distakul flew to Burma on Friday to meet Thien Swe, his Burmese counterpart, in Naypyidaw to discuss the new Thai law on migrant workers.

The meeting followed a chaotic week in which the military government was forced to suspend enforcement of tough new regulations for six months after tens of thousands of frightened foreign migrants left the country.

Thailand has asked Burma, officially known as Myanmar, to speed up verifying the identities of workers and to issue them certificates of identity, the equivalent of passports for those without them, so that they can work legally in Thailand, Varanon Peetiwan, director-general of the Employment Department, said on Saturday.

Thailand also proposed the setup of a joint working committee to sort out problems that may arise during the six-month period before the new regulations take effect.

Burmese officials reportedly accepted the Thai proposals and asked Thailand to spread the news among Burmese labourers and ensure they are treated fairly under employment contracts.

Burma also asked about the number of workers in Thailand so it can prepare resources to register its nationals. It also asked Thailand to check employers’ demand letters to ensure the numbers match to prevent problems stemming from illegal workers. It also asked Thailand to verify labour documents carefully to prevent imposters.

Mr Varanon said Thailand also asked Burma to set up identity verification centres in border areas to issue certificates of identity for workers returning to Thailand, where Thailand could also issue visas and work permits as required.

There are an estimated 4 million foreign workers in the country but anywhere between 1 million and 2 million are said to be illegal. This is partly because the registration process is cumbersome and expensive. Corruption is also widespread.

As a result, many employers hire people under the table, pay them less than the minimum wage and offer very few protections.

The Thai military government last month issued the new decree hurriedly and with minimal consultation of businesses and employers, saying it urgently needed to show the world that it was getting tough on human trafficking.

The decree, effective from 22 June, called for heavy fines ranging from 400,000 to 800,000 baht [over US$$10,000 to $20,000) per unregistered worker. That triggered an exodus of illegal workers as Thai employers stopped hiring them and a sudden shortage of labour in Thailand.

Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, as chief of the National Council for Peace and Order, issued a Section 44 order delaying the enforcement of some sections of the law for 180 days, during which both employers and employees have to take action to comply with the new law.

Also last week, a programme was launched in Thailand allowing migrant workers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia to apply for papers during a 15-day hiatus. Several centers around the country – 10 of which will be in and around Bangkok – are to be opened on 24 July to allow certain migrants – those whose employer details had changed or whose worker registration cards had expired – to reapply.

“After obtaining those papers issued by the 15-day special programme service centres, the migrant workers will have their Certificate of Identify processed. Only then can their applications for visas and work permits can be processed,” said Waranont Pitiwan, director of Thailand’s Department of Employment.

This article was republished courtesy of the Bangkok Post.

Additional reporting by DVB’s Nang Mya Nadi