Illegal immigrants from Myanmar account for three-quarters of Thailand’s foreign workers [Al Jazeera] Pressure is mounting on Thailand to give greater protection to illegal migrant workers from Myanmar.
Human rights groups say they make up around 75 per cent of foreign workers in Thailand, and that number is expected to rise in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.
The Thai government has just introduced a new anti-trafficking law that recognises labour exploitation for the first time.
But campaigners fear that the new regulations may not be enough, and that more needs to be done to help give migrant workers basic rights.
The workers do a range of jobs in Thailand, including manning many of the fishing trawlers that work out of Bangkok harbour.
Like many others from Myanmar the fishermen have no employment rights, no protection and no contract.
All of them work under a loose, verbal agreement under which their employers will pay them up to 6,000 baht ($170) at the end of the working month.
“The owners of the fishing boats shout at us and intimidate us when we are unloading the fish and it makes it difficult to work,” Myo Chit, a Myanmarese fisherman told Al Jazeera.
According to Labour Rights Organisations, the fishermen are forced to work more than 12 hours per day, seven days per week.
Often they do not get paid, but despite that they are propping up Thailand’s fishing industry, which is worth one billion dollars a year.
However the workers say they are prepared to put up with the low pay because they fear returning home to Myanmar to live under the oppressive military regime there.
Thit lost her arm in an accident but has little hope of getting compensation [Al Jazeera] For many though, life in Thailand is little better; many arrive via sophisticated human trafficking cartels without any documentation.
The Thai government considers them illegal immigrants but some employers are more than willing to exploit them.
“They will be sealed in the factory compound and not allowed to get out,” said Junya Lek Yimprasert of the Thai Labour Campaign, “and for the young girls, they can be forced or tricked into the sexual opportunities of their employers.”
Migrant workers also have no recourse to law if they are injured at work or lose their jobs.
Thit escaped Myanmar hoping for a better life in Myanmar, but in March she was involved in an accident at the recycling depot where she worked, and lost part of her arm.
“I can’t work with one hand,” Thit told Al Jazeera, “my husband says I must go back to Myanmar but the boss won’t give me compensation so I can’t afford to go back.”
The Thai Labour Rights Protection Network is fighting to get her compensation, but because she is an illegal immigrant, her employer is not obliged to pay anything.
For its part the Thai government says it is making efforts to give workers from Myanmar some basic rights.
It has introduced a new anti-trafficking law which recognises the mistreatment of migrant workers.
“We have asked the Labour ministry to survey and to register undocumented workers,” said Noppadon Pattama, Thailand’s foreign minister.
“We have to provide legal protection for Myanmar illegal workers in Thailand in the same way that we protect our Thai workers.”
But the rights organisations fears that the police, often subject to corruption, will not enforce the new laws.
And while people continue to flee Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis, many Thai employers have a ready and willing workforce to exploit.