Category Archives: Migration Policy in Thailand

Deportation, exploitation and death at the Thai border

Vendors block the Poipet International Border Checkpoint last month by dumping nearly 1,000 kilograms of fish in the street in protest against a Thai tariff increase. Photo supplied

It had only been a few days since the latest crackdown on Cambodian migrants working in Thailand – more than 1,000 illegal workers were sent back in only three days in early March before attention once again turned to this slow burning international conflict.

A few months before, thousands more suffered a similar fate. Moreover, these were the lucky ones. According to a Ministry of Interior report, in 2016 “Thai soldiers shot dead two and injured seven Cambodian citizens who illegally crossed the border, and arrested 293 people, including 45 females”, with a spate of violence in December of last year prompting emergency talks between top leaders to discuss a border that remains “a killing machine” according to human rights groups.

Nevertheless, the issue runs far deeper than the disproportionate responses of a handful of border police. The key dissonance is not between Thai and Cambodian authorities’ view of their mutual border, but between the official view of the Thai-Cambodian migration system and the perspective of those who use it.

Though they appear to debate and discuss their shared issues, both sides persist in a consensus that criminalises much of the everyday movement taking place between their two countries, rather than recognising it for the informal, but systematic and bilaterally cooperative institution that it is.

Indeed, the Thai-Cambodian cross-border economy is vital to both sides. Immigrant workers have been estimated to contribute about 1 percent of real GDP growth to the Thai economy and the figure is almost certainly growing as the volume of migration continues to expand. At the same time, the flows of money sent back by workers in Thailand have become intimately intertwined with the Cambodian rural economy.

The labour-sharing systems that sustained rural villages in more isolated times have increasingly given way, in this era of high and rising environmental risk, to faster, more capital intensive farming methods that require income from beyond the household.

The mutual reliance of these neighbouring economies reveals a fundamental disjuncture between the economics and politics of the Thai-Cambodian border. On the one hand, it is a deeply co-dependent and thriving cross-border economy; on the other, two separate sovereign states separated by an invisible but deadly border.

These realities one official, one actual are mutually exclusive, but those who pay the price for their discordance are not planners and logicians, but ordinary Cambodians, pressed by circumstances into joining an old and well-established system of international mobility.

Far from the clarity of the thick black lines that divides the two nations in theory, the border separating Cambodia and Thailand is a living entity, defined more by personal relationships, networks and tradition than legality. Indeed, legality is itself a relative concept here. Although vast numbers of Cambodians living on the east side of the border cross regularly to participate in agricultural, construction, or factory labour, a recent study – forthcoming in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography – has found that only 3.6 percent of current or former migrants possessed a full set of documentation for work abroad.

By the clearly defined letter of international law, then, more than 19 out of 20 migrants to Thailand from some areas of Cambodia are working as illegal immigrants. However, to view the situation thusly would be to grossly misrepresent the situation.

Whilst around half of the remainder possess no documentation, a further 40 percent possess a “bat”, a temporary work permit facilitating employment of foreign nationals subject to a stringent set of conditions including regular renewal, weekly reports to local police authorities and of course the ability to present a valid passport.

The long hours and limited freedoms characteristic of most forms of migrant labour makes fulfilling any let alone all of these conditions impossible. Very few possess both a visa and a work permit and even among those who do, even fewer renew it regularly or submit to the burdensome registration conditions of which many are unaware.

However, that so many Cambodians spend hundreds of dollars processing various combinations of documents either through official or, far more commonly, unofficial means should not be dismissed as ignorance. Along the Cambodian border, as in many parts of the world, borders simply look different to those who use them. Official channels are not only prohibitively expensive and often distrusted, but also physically and institutionally distant. Informal ones, by contrast, usually in the form of brokers and middlemen, are human, accessible and offer solutions in simple terms.

Rather than the scattered outposts of government administration in far western Cambodia, or its central base hundreds of kilometres away in Phnom Penh, it is these people a vast network of drivers, salesmen, managers and employers of both Thai and Cambodian origin that are the face of authority for most of those who use the border.

Consequently, for those who participate in the informal economy of cross-border migration, it is not the government that sets the rules of documentation, but the known, trusted and – crucially – physically present broker who stands in front of them. If he or she says, as brokers are wont to do, that “with documents you can go everywhere freely, but without them you will be always looking around, always fearful”, then a migrant has little choice but to believe them.

Furthermore, while the narratives of documentation offered by brokers may not tally with the legal reality, this does not make them untrue. In the Thai-Cambodian migration system, as in many others, the people who use brokers to cross a border remain within their influence on either side.

Repayment plans for documents are arranged and employers are selected even before leaving the village in most cases. Similarly, brokers offer protection from authorities on both sides, although the extent depends on the cost of the service provided: the more you pay, the safer you are.

Those who choose the basic package of brokerage run the greatest level of risk – “running all night through the forest” or “hiding in the back of a truck” to escape the authorities. And it is this group the poorest farmers, the deepest in debt –whose wages will be both lower and docked more punitively to pay for the cost of their trip. Indeed, there is a hierarchy of prices for work in different industries. As migrants themselves explained:

‘[I]f you want work in construction it will cost you 3,000 baht [$92], but if you want to work in a garment factory, it may be 4,000 baht [$123]’ (Returned Migrant 13, Svay, 14/08/2014).

In this way, both the migration process itself and employment on the Thai side reflect the entrenched financial inequalities of life in Western Cambodia. Subtle variations in rural livelihoods create uneven opportunities across the border and these differences in working conditions in turn reinforce inequalities at home. Poverty on one side of the border means poverty on the other as the ever present flows of people linking the two countries keep migrants and their households constantly and dynamically linked together – but for both sides migration means life.

For those who use it, then, this vast migration system is a cohesive, living organism; it is the border – impotent and dead atop a thriving economic entity that is the unnatural element. Cambodians do not migrate illegally because they wish to, but because illegal migration is practically the only course of action on offer. The much vaunted One Stop Service Centres set up in the wake of the 2014 exodus are only a small part of the solution. While they help to streamline the complex process of obtaining documentation, it is only documentation that they offer, without the linkages to employers, transportation, or guidance that are vital to a successful migration.

For the poorest households that are the primary source of undocumented migration from Cambodia, it is these services that matter more than any other. Even if they can obtain documents, most potential migrants cannot cross a border speculatively looking for work, nor can they afford the chance of failure given the investment of time and resources that any migration requires. Consequently, “guarantees” of work however dubious are invariably preferable to the uncertainties of legality. Nevertheless, the tradeoff for choosing the only economic pathway available to many worse-off Cambodians is the risk of exploitation, deportation and death.

This everyday injustice emerges not from the brutality of police patrols but from the highest levels of international policy: where legal frameworks reflect the two countries’ economic inter-linkages so poorly, conflict is inevitable. As long as both sides fail to acknowledge the reality that they are vital to each other’s ongoing economic health, the convenient political myth of mutual isolation will continue to see Cambodians disadvantaged, exploited and killed.

Rectifying this means first recognising that the Thai-Cambodian border is not a natural national edifice punctured by opportunistic criminals, but a largely arbitrary division of a longstanding system of mobility sustained by a shared history and culture of mobile livelihoods.

As long as accessible migration services – in the form of documents, but also linkages to employers, and affordable and practical transportation – continue to be the sole preserve of “criminal” agents, then it will continue to be the poorest Cambodians who are criminalised and made to run the starkest risk to their lives and livelihoods. It is time for these two states to give back something to the embattled migrants that link and enrich them.

Dr Laurie Parsons has been an academic researcher of Cambodian mobile livelihoods since 2008, conducting large-scale projects for Transparency International, Plan International, Save the Children, CARE International, ActionAid, the IDRC and the Royal University of Phnom Penh among others.


By: Dr Laurie Parsons, The Phnom Penh Post

Published On: 29 March 2017

Migrants expected to meet demand for unskilled labour in Chon Buri (Thailand)

THE NUMBER of unskilled migrant workers in Chon Buri province is expected to increase significantly, by about 30,000 annually over the next three years, driven by the government’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development project.

The EEC is expected to attract more private investment as well as labourers into the province as the government develops infrastructure projects in the Eastern region, including installation of a high-speed rail route from Bangkok to Pattaya and Rayong and the upgrade of Map Ta Phut military air base into commercial U-tapao International Airport.

Chon Buri Governor Pakarathorn Thienchai said his province was one of those in the Eastern region targeted by the government with the aim of stimulating the country’s overall economy.

The EEC project is set to develop the region’s infrastructure, including its seaport, airport, and high-speed and double-track railways. Such developments would attract more private investment and employment in the region, particularly Chon Buri province.

“Under the EEC development, a working group has been set up to be in charge of the layout of a working framework and concept. Chaired by the minister of industry and [including] representatives from participating provinces, it will make the project effective as soon as possible,” he said.

“The EEC development project will promote trade, investment and tourism, as well as competitiveness in participating provinces throughout the region. It will also attract both local and overseas investors into the region.

“Chon Buri will also position itself as a city of tourism, which will fully benefit individual investors and providers of tourism services in the province.”

He added that beyond tourism, the province would also focus on the support of environment-friendly and agricultural industries.

According to Sutham Buakeaw, chief of the Chon Buri Provincial Employment Office, the working-age population in the province is currently about 1.04 million, with only 3,385 people unemployed at last count.

He said Chon Buri had no problem regarding a shortage of skilled labour, thanks to the cooperation between the educational sector, especially vocational schools, and private companies, for the development of a dual vocational training initiative, which allows students to get on-the-job training along with theoretical education at school. This cooperation would bring enough skilled workers into the system.

“However, the growth of the overall economy and urbanisation in Chon Buri as well as higher government and private investments will lead to a shortage of unskilled labourers in the province, for both the industrial sector and general work,” Sutham said.

“Thai people have enjoyed higher education, and tend to become higher-skilled workers. Meanwhile, the gap in the supply of unskilled workers has been filled by migrant labour, particularly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos,” he said.

Temporary contracts

There are currently 150,000 migrant workers in Chon Buri, and that number is expected to increase by about 30,000 annually over the next three years, according to Sutham. He added that most of the migrant workers in Chon Buri had been under temporary contracts of one or two years.

“With many migrant workers flooding into the province, we have seen many problems, including |jobs snatched from Thai workers. Many migrant workers have not actually entered the real factory system, but have been working independently in fresh markets… so that they have not been monitored and controlled by employers or government officers,” he said.

Viboon Kromadit, chief marketing officer at Amata Corp, said the company operated two major industrial estates, Amata Nakorn in Chon Buri and Amata City in Rayong, which employed about 230,000 to 240,000 workers in total.

Amata Nakorn Industrial Estate is occupied by 700-800 factories and employs three-quarters of the workers in Chon Buri. Meanwhile, Amata City houses 200-300 factories and employs one-third of the workers in Rayong. Most of the factories are owned or have been developed by investors from Thailand, China, South Korea and Europe, and most of the people employed in the fac-tories are skilled Thai workers.

“At Amata, we have gone beyond the era of labour-intensive industry, and are moving towards creativity, value-added, automation and innovation, to be under the government’s ‘Thailand 4.0’ scheme,” he said.

Viboon said that driven by the EEC development project and urbanisation of Chon Buri, the number of skilled workers in the province was expected to increase by about 10 per cent, or more than 20,000 people, every year.

The most significant driving factors are the flow of foreign direct investments into Chon Buri under the EEC so as to benefit from the tax incentives provided by the government, the improvement of central infrastructure, including road and railway systems, and the upgrade of energy facilities, and the boom in the tourism sector.


By: Kwanchai Rungfapaisarn, The Nation

Published on: 28 March 2017

Migrant workers told to register or face deportation

File photo: Police check migrant workers at the Tawanna market on March 10 following complaints that there are illegal migrants working there.

All migrant workers in the fishing industry are required to register by the end of this month, the Ministry of Labour has announced.

The ministry said all migrant workers in the fishing industry have to register themselves to receive a proper work permit before March 31, as presently there are only 47,000 registered migrant workers in the fisheries sector, Thai National News Bureau reported.

Labour Ministry Inspector-General Ananchai Uthaipathaanacheep said the fisheries sector employed 146,000 migrant workers in 2016 and their work permits will expire soon.

So far only 47,000 migrant workers have renewed their work permits, leaving 99,000 at risk of being classified as illegal workers, he said.

He urged employers to help their migrant workers renew their permits before the deadline or face their employees being deported.

He said the employers must first submit work applications for their migrant workers to a local employment office. The workers will then be required to undertake a physical examination, before reporting to the office to receive their identification card and work permit.

Once these procedures are complete, officials will register their nationality before issuing a passport and a work visa.

The work permits this year will allow migrant labourers to work in Thailand until November 1.

A foreign worker is allowed to request a visa extension for a maximum of two years.


By: The Nation

Published on: 22 March 2017

Chicken farm workers paid compensation

The Labour Court has ordered Dhammakaset Co Ltd, which operates a poultry farm in Lop Buri, to pay 1.7 million baht in compensation to 14 Myanmar workers who were forced to work long hours and were underpaid.

The Saraburi-based Region 1 Labour Court on Friday ordered the company, previously contracted to supply poultry to Thai export giant Betagro, to pay 1.7 million baht in back wages to the 14 migrants for working on public holidays, which is considered overtime.

The court’s order was issued in line with a decision made in August by Lop Buri’s Labour Protection and Welfare Office which awarded the workers 1.7 million baht in back wages.

The court also acquitted Betagro, accused of involvement in encouraging forced labour, reasoning the company had nothing to do with the operation of the chicken farm. The judge also threw out the 14 Myanmar workers’ petitions seeking further compensation.

Suthasinee Kaewsinlek, a member of the Migrant Workers Right Network representing the 14 workers at the hearing, said the 1.7-million-baht compensation fell short of what the workers should have actually received for the overtime.

The compensation was retroactive for only two years despite the workers having been at the farm for about three to five years up to the point of the court trial.

Ms Suthasinee said she planned to discuss with the 14 migrants whether they wanted to take the case to the Supreme Court, adding two of them also faced a counter suit by the company, which is accusing them of theft.

The lawsuit against Dhammakaset was brought to court in September last year by 14 workers seeking 46 million baht in compensation and civil damages for alleged abuses suffered by the workers for several years at the poultry farm.

The workers’ litigation came after labour officials in Lop Buri decided the overtime owed to the workers was worth 1.7 million baht.

However, the workers insisted the amount was insufficient and demanded full compensation over the course of five years of employment under poor working conditions.

They accused the farm owner of forcing them to work more than 15 hours a day without any days off and paying them only 230 baht a day, well below the daily minimum wage of 300 baht.

They also said they did not get paid overtime for working during public holidays.


By: Penchan Charoensuthipan, Bangkok Post

Published on: 18 March 2017

Thais waive border fees for Cambodian New Year

Arantyaprathet train station is usually crowded during Songkarn festival when Cambodian workers go home to celebrate the festival with their families. (Bangkok Post file photo)


Thai officials will next month waive fees at border gates to allow workers from Cambodia to return home for the New Year.

The Cambodian embassy in Thailand confirmed on Wednesday the move to Khmer Times and said the free pass will apply to all Cambodian workers and under 18-year-old family members.

“From April 5 to 30, Khmer workers carrying pink cards, passports or valid documents will be able to cross the Thai border to Cambodia during Khmer New Year and return to Thailand without paying border fees,” a letter from Thai officials said.

Valid documents include letters of permission from the Thai or Cambodian Labor Ministry, work visas and work permits, according to a report in Khmer Times.

“Workers must have their documents and return back to work in Thailand before May 1,” said the letter, adding that workers can contact Cambodian embassy officials in Thailand if they have problems crossing the border.

Cambodian people celebrate the New Year by gathering with family members over the three-day celebration. Children who work far away from home often go to visit their parents and relatives in their hometown.

The New Year this year is from April 14 to 16.

Thailand’s assistant government spokesman Athisit Chaiyanuwat told the Bangkok Post the free border crossings will also be offered to migrants from Laos and Myanmar.

Thailand, Laos and Myanmar celebrate the New Year at the same time.


By: Khmer Times, Bangkok Post

Published on: 18 March 2017

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