Labour, migrant rights under spotlight as Thailand wrestles with COVID-19 impact

Workers in Thailand change shifts at a fish cannery that employs 6,000 mostly Burmese migrant workers. Photo by Solidarity Center/Jeanne Hallacy. 2014. Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This edited article by Thammachart Kri-aksorn is from Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and is republished by Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

The Thai Ministry of Labour has invoked an Emergency Decree to prohibit labor strikes and lockouts during the COVID-19 outbreak. Any labour disputes will be now be transferred to the Labour Relations Committee appointed by Chatumongol Sonakul, the Minister of Labour.

The order entered force on May 6.

Under normal circumstances, Thai law allows strikes and lockouts for irreconcilable disputes, except in essential infrastructure industries. The government can intervene only when the country is under martial law or an emergency decree, or when the Minister of Labour rules that labor disputes may affect the economy or public order, such as is the case at the moment.

The order was issued in an attempt to mitigate surging unemployment resulting from government measures taken to control COVID-19. On May 13 the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare called for business owners to consider labour relations principles before laying off employees, including alternative cost-cutting and improved human resources management.

Anusorn Tamajai, Dean of the Faculty of Economics, Rangsit University, questioned whether government intervention has helped. On May 10, Anusorn expressed concern that the prohibition on strikes may increase lay-offs and worsen working conditions as business owners struggle to cut costs. The problem cannot be solved by more prohibition, but by more protection, said Anusorn.

In his advice to the Ministry of Labour, Anusorn suggested that in order to slow lay-offs, the Ministry should amend the Labour Protection Act and extend compensation for all unemployed persons for two months, regardless of how long they were employed for.

Jumping off a building?

The Ministry of Labour said that as of May 10, a million people have registered for unemployment compensation. This surge  has overwhelmed the system, resulting in delays processing money transfers.

These delays have deepened economic hardship. On May 12 a group of unemployed gathered at the headquarters of the Office of Social Security and threatened to jump off a building unless the compensation money was transferred by May 15.

Dr Duangrit Benjathikul Chairungruang, Deputy Minister of Labour, said that from April 20 to May 11, the Office of Social Security had transferred 3,997 million baht (125,500 US dollars) to 706,633 unemployed.

Whether employers close businesses themselves or by order of the government, the unemployed will get 62% of their daily salary for a maximum of 90 days.

Those who do not get approval to receive compensation can file an appeal to the Office by May 18.

There was much debate about whether the Office of Social Security should increase the amount of compensation from 62% to 75% of daily salaries.

The Office, however, rejected the proposal, claiming that the increase will make the Social Security system unsustainable in the long run.

Pregnant Myanmar migrant worker to return home

On May 13, Theanrat Nawamawat, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour, revealed that a 30-year-old, four-months pregnant Myanmar migrant worker came to the Ministry to request help. Wa Wa Thuay had worked in Nakhon Pathom for four years with registration documents. After her employer closed the business due to the outbreak of COVID-19, she had nowhere to go.

Her husband was also working in Thailand, but had to go back to Myanmar to renew his work permit.

He was prevented from coming back to his wife when the Thai-Myanmar border was closed due to COVID-19. Lacking a job, money or relatives in Thailand,Wa Wa Thuay wanted to go back to her husband and family in Myanmar.

The Ministry coordinated with the Myanmar Embassy’s labour attaché to return Wa Wa Thuay to her homeland. Ministry officials will accompany her to the border at Mae Sot, Tak Province, and facilitate paperwork for her to get home.

Despite a positive conclusion to the case, structural problems remain. So far, Thailand's policies towards foreign migrant workers have focused more on prevention and containment of COVID-19. The Thai government started to close its land borders on March 23 and allowed foreign migrant workers to extend their stay until May 30. Leaflets, masks, and hand-sanitizing gels have been distributed. Checklists and screening procedures have been imposed in workplaces.

According to the Ministry of Labour, there were 2,814,481 registered foreign migrant workers in Thailand as of March this year.

The Office of Social Security reported in April last year that 1,017,732 foreign migrant workers have social security.

More than half of all migrant workers, therefore, seem to lack state protections.

Some migrant workers arrived in Thailand under MOUs that the Thai government reached with neighbouring countries to facilitate labor migration.

Others come to Thailand through different channels, both legal and illegal. Usually, all of them require the help of employers or brokers to process documents for them. The fundamental problem is that the system is badly designed.

Johnny Adikharee, the leader of a Myanmar labour union in Thailand, believes that 95% of migrant workers do not know about the benefits of social security. Even for those who do know about it, procedures are too complicated.

Suthasinee Keawleklai, Coordinator of the Migrant Workers Rights Network, said that in order to ask for compensation for lay-offs, a migrant worker not only has to ask for a letter of approval from the employer but must go through both the Department of Employment and the Office of Social Security.

Most of the time, a migrant worker needs to hire a lawyer to get through the process.

Suchat Pornchaiwiseskul, Director-General of the Department of Employment, Ministry of Labour, insisted that there is no discrimination since the Thai government applies the same law to both Thai and migrant workers.

If there is unfair treatment, they can ask the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare for support.

Migrant workers who have no access to social security tend to work in seasonal agriculture and fisheries. Although they have no social security, employers tend to buy health insurance for them.

Still, the Ministry of Labour should improve the system to make it more accessible, said Sompong Srakaew of the Labour Rights Promotion Network.

Sompong said that at present, the system forces migrant workers to pay significant sums to navigate the documentation process. It also makes migrant workers heavily reliant on employers.

Sometimes, an employee pays an employer every month [to cover] social security, but the employer does not pay their social security. Or in the case of MOUs, where the Thai government attempts to legalise all foreign migrant workers, processing documents themselves or through middlemen is expensive. Workers have no money for it, like 1,900 baht (59.6 US dollars) for a 2-year visa. Some just become illegal workers, and then they get exploited by the brokers, the employers, or even the officials.

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