NGOs called on Thailand’s government to help improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers from neighboring countries, as a migrant advocacy group on Thursday released a report into conditions facing foreign laborers in the agricultural sector.
Nearly nine out of every 10 migrants in the sector worked under difficult conditions, for more than eight hours per day, and on average were paid significantly less than the minimum wage, according to the findings of a two-year study by the Mekong Migration Network (MMN).
A survey it conducted found that 87 percent faced those issues. The report drew on data from interviews of workers, government officials, civil society organizations, employment agencies, employers along with former migrant workers who had returned to their home countries.
“Migrant workers have dreams that they want to have a good house, nice family, be a land owner – but in reality, they live in crowded and poor conditions,” said Sutthisak Rungrueangphasuk, manager of the MAP Foundation’s Mae Sot office in northern Thailand’s Tak province.
“They decided to move to work in Thailand to save money to send back home to Myanmar, but working in our country does not provide better conditions,” he said. The foundation is a non-profit whose goal is to work with at-risk people to help them achieve a better quality of life.
Reiko Harima, the Mekong Migration Network’s regional coordinator, introduced Sutthisak and other speakers involved in presenting the survey to reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.
Among those questioned for the survey were 328 Myanmar and Cambodian citizens who helped harvest corn, cassava, palm oil and rubber in Tak, Rayong, Surat Thani and Phang Nga provinces between September 2017 and July 2019.
More than half of the migrants working in agricultural jobs did not have proper documentation to remain in Thailand, the study found, adding the undocumented workers ended up in jobs that pay less than the minimum wage.
Laborers on rubber plantation work the longest hours, with 87 percent of respondents working more than eight hours per day and 40 percent working more than 12 hours. In contrast, almost none of the workers on corn, cassava, and palm oil plantations reported working more than 12 hours a day, according to the study.
The survey found that 46 percent of the workers on corn farms received less than 4,500 baht (U.S. $144) per month, 10 percent did not receive owed wages and 8 percent had their passports kept by the employers, or were not allowed to leave the farm. In addition, 82 percent reported having to purchase their own safety equipment such as rubber boots, safety helmets, rubber gloves, masks, goggles.
Paid well below the minimum wage
The farm workers’ pay averaged about 150 baht per day, less than half the nation’s 330 baht minimum wage.
Win Soe of Myanmar, who works in Tak province, said that most workers received little pay.
“Workers who work in corn, cassava and sugar cane fields receive very low wages of 100 to 150 baht ($3.20 to $4.80) per day. Workers can make 200 baht ($6.40) a day if they can drive a truck,” Win said.
“We make less when comparing wages with Thai workers. I do not understand why we earn so little money. We need the government to help talk to our employers.”
An official with the Thai labor ministry who was invited to speak said laws protect documented agricultural workers.
“The government is trying to solve problems related to migrant workers in Thailand as well as improving the law and sending labor inspectors to determine if any illegal activities are found in work places,” said Phattana Phanfak, assistant to the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor.
“But at the same time, it is recommended that migrant workers who encounter problems go through their embassies to file complaints,” she said.
Other mechanisms to aid migrant workers are in place, including a government employment website where complaints can be filed anonymously.
“There is a hotline, there are interpreters for Burmese, Cambodian and English,” she said.
As of October 2019, Thailand had a total of 330,000 migrant agricultural workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as part of a memorandum of understanding. In addition, 18,600 were employed as daily or seasonal workers while thousands more are undocumented, according to national labor statistics.
Phattana said agricultural labor inspections over the last three months had found that 443 of 451 work places were in compliance while eight work places employing 122 were not.
MMN’s report recommended that the government make immigration registration easier for workers, improve working conditions by implementing existing policies, promoting health and safety through increased enforcement and inspections, monitoring housing and improving access to health care.
Recommendations to employers include supporting workers’ efforts to maintain immigration status, implementing health and safety standards, educating employees about workplace hazards and providing training at no cost and housing that meets safety standards.
The report also called on NGOs to increase outreach, raise awareness about health and safety issues and advocate for the reduction or ban of harmful pesticides.