Workers’ welfare demands stability

Aye Mya Win wants to be a doctor. Her favourite subject is mathematics, but just a few years ago, students at her migrant learning centre in Mae Sot were using rocks to learn to count. Now the 14-year-old plays number games and improves her Thai-language skills on a tablet, reads at least two hours every day after school and recently ranked third in the non-formal primary education exam in Myanmar’s Kayin State — one of the first girls to score in the top five.

Education is a fundamental human right for all. In the case of Aye Mya Win, who was out of school when her family first moved to Thailand, quality education has clearly transformed her life and future opportunities.

Thailand has a history of putting into place socially progressive policies that assist migrants like Aye Mya Win. In 2005, Thailand’s landmark Cabinet Resolution on Education for Unregistered Persons stipulated that all children, regardless of legal status, are entitled to 15 years of free education. More than 164,000 migrants and non-Thai students are enrolled in schools and learning centres nationwide, but an estimated 200,000 migrant children remain out of school, according to recent figures from the United Nations.

Implementation of inclusive policies like the 2005 Resolution is crucial for Thailand to respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by migration. As the fastest-growing destination country in Asean, Thailand now hosts an estimated 4.9 million non-Thais, most of whom are migrant workers from neighbouring Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar.

This striking statistic was captured in the Thailand Migration Report 2019, launched last week by the Thailand UN Country Team Thematic Working Group on Migration, which includes 16 UN Agencies active in Thailand and is chaired by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The report provides a comprehensive analysis of migration in Thailand and delivers a set of UN recommendations for establishing a long-term, coherent and rights-based migration governance framework. At the same time, however, each statistic and data point represents a human being, with the same hopes and fears shared by all people.

Thailand has made significant commitments to safeguard the rights of vulnerable migrants. Last week, senior officials signed a memorandum of understanding to limit the detention of children in immigration centres, except as a last resort and for as brief a period of time as possible, bringing the country closer to international standards. The government’s review of this independent UN report and its willingness to engage with its findings, which includes discussion of issues such as decriminalising sex work and the existence of exploitative practices within supply chains, is in itself a positive step.

In the most high-profile example during the past five years, Thailand has responded to international scrutiny of its fisheries industry with major reforms, intended to address labour rights abuses against migrants and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The regulatory improvements resulted in the European Union removing its “yellow card”, which has hung over the sector since 2015. However, the report emphasises that the task is not complete and more enforcement is needed to address persistent abuses, as well as to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the fisheries industry.

Other migrant workers employed in the informal economy, such as agricultural workers, domestic workers and sex workers, are also vulnerable due to limited labour and social protection under Thailand’s labour laws. Moreover, workers in these sectors often do not have fair access to redress in cases of exploitation or abuse, with complaints too often met by intimidation and retaliatory lawsuits. However, improving their situation in Thailand has received much less effort and investment to date.

Many migrants also have trouble securing health services, particularly for those who are undocumented. Although Thailand has inclusive health insurance schemes that offer the opportunity for all migrants to enroll regardless of their legal status, practical barriers to coverage limit their access in practice. There is more work to be done to achieve universal health coverage for all non-Thai residents.

The risks associated with the precarious legal status of migrants in Thailand extend to many other areas of their lives. In recent years, policy measures to limit irregular migration have contributed to several dramatic exoduses of migrants from the country. Ever-shifting policy and the resulting uncertainty for migrants leaves them vulnerable and restricts their ability to fully participate in the social, economic and cultural life of their host society.

To develop more coherent policies, a clearer understanding is needed of the positive contribution that migrants make to Thailand and the broader Asean region. Migrant workers are an integral part of Thailand’s economy, representing over 10% of the workforce and contributing as much as 6.6% of GDP. The demand for migrants to fill labour shortages is only likely to increase in the coming years due to the country’s ageing population. Moreover, the remittances that migrants send back to their families in countries of origin are an important source of household income, with US$2.8 billion remitted annually.

Last year, Thailand signed the Global Compact for Migration, recognising that safe, orderly and regular migration requires international cooperation. As the Asean chair, Thailand is now well-positioned to promote the development of a more inclusive regional architecture for labour migration that provides opportunities for safe migration and decent work for all, including women and low-skilled workers. That will require a collaborative approach that includes governments, private sector companies, trade unions and civil society organisations in dialogue and action.

Such initiatives work to better the lives of migrants. The tablet that young Aye Mya Win now uses in her lessons is one of thousands provided to children in border provinces as part of a mobile learning effort jointly pioneered by Thailand’s Ministry of Education, True Corporation and Unesco Bangkok. When migrant children have returned to Kayin State in Myanmar to sit for exams, mobile learning students achieved the top five scores statewide for the past two years in a row. These children have benefited enormously from Thailand’s progressive policy on education for migrants — and most certainly, Thailand and the region benefit as well.

Deirdre Boyd is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Thailand.

Source: Bangkok Post
Published on 4 February 2019

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