Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Thailand’s modern-day slavery

Migrant workers in Thailand need real protection from the corrupt bosses and officials who prey upon the million migrant workers in Thailand and half of them remained unregistered.

In a recent statement, a number of labour and human rights organisations called on the government to reopen migrant registration and to take appropriate measures to protect migrant families as well as give their children the rights to education.
The problem with the government's past initiative, as these rights groups pointed out, is that it remained impractical, with the registration process often ignored by migrants and especially their employers.

It is hoped that the recent government announcement on the reopening of migrant registration will herald a reduction in low-skilled labour shortages as well as increased opportunities for migrants to access benefits and rights, in particular, health and labour rights.

In the past, government registration programmes have provided few incentives for compliance on the part of migrants and employers because of various restrictions in terms of time and activities.

The registration process itself has been too complex and costly, thus opening the way for exploitation. It is an open secret that many officials have benefited handsomely from these practices either by turning a blind eye or facilitating the movement of workers in exchange for payment.

Besides the corrupt officials, our society has tended to look down on these migrant workers for taking up work that is often shunned by Thai labourers, who frequently prefer to move abroad themselves in search of more lucrative employment.

We hear frequently about the difficulties that these Thai migrant workers face, especially the so-called agents who charge them ridiculous sums of money for things we take for granted, such as visa applications and plane tickets and, of course, the usual entry fees.

But if you think that Thai workers travelling abroad get a bad deal from their agents and recruiters, the picture for migrant workers coming to Thailand is often worse. Besides the fact that the playing field is not level for them, there is really no one they can turn to raise their case. In short, the way these migrant workers get treated in Thailand would be tantamount to slavery by labour standards in many developed countries.

What is needed in Thailand is an effective public awareness campaign of the upcoming registration process, specifically in the languages of migrant workers so that they are able to understand their rights.

And like many of us, these migrant workers have families and children, too. They must be permitted to access the country's education system.

Such a campaign could be run collectively with Thailand's Asean partners, as migrant workers, especially unskilled labourers, are likely to come from neighbouring countries. In other words, policies must be consistent with regional migration trends.

For too long now, migrant workers' complaints have gone unheard as authorities continue to turn a blind eye to their plight, grievances and the unfair practices imposed on them by their Thai bosses.

The answer to this abuse lies in a mechanism to ensure this vulnerable group can easily complain and access justice when their rights are violated.

Authorities paying lip service to the needs of these workers is one thing. But what is really needed is action. Among the first steps should be the promotion of an inclusive migration policy that allows labour organisations to act as watchdogs and, when needed, speak and/or act on behalf of these migrant workers. These organisations should also have a role in formulating policies so as to instil a system of checks and balances between the authorities and the migrant workers. The Nation, Bangkok

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