The latest setback for the 3 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand began in June 2013 when temporary passports issued between June 2009 and August 2013 started to expire.
Workers received the temporary passports, valid only for travel to Thailand, under a 2003 bilateral memorandum of understanding on cooperation in worker employment: 1.7 million completed a joint Thai/Myanmar national verification process.
The process did not require identification or household registration documents to receive a new passport. Temporary passports were issued within days at border service centres in Thailand which have been closed.
These passports began expiring in June 2013 and a new scheme was established. Workers with ID and household registration have the option of submitting their documents to the Thai Labour Ministry via their employer. The documents are verified in Nay Pyi Taw and returned to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok with approval to issue a passport.
Migrant Worker Rights Network director U Sein Htay said only a few workers have been able to complete the national verification process because most lack the necessary documents.
The number of Myanmar workers in Thailand with expired visas has reached more than 400,000 and is growing by up to 700 a day, said U Sein Htay.
It is a process migrant workers' rights activist Mr Andy Hall says is fraught with corruption and lacks transparency.
“Since last year the Myanmar government began insisting on house registration and ID cards, which is impossible to provide for the majority of migrant workers in Thailand; insisting they return to Myanmar is impracticable and devoid of common sense,” said Mr Hall, who is on trial for defaming Thai company Natural Fruit over a report alleging it had violated migrant workers’ rights.
Under a directive issued by the military junta that seized power in Thailand in May, workers have had the option of registering with the Thai government to receive temporary work permits since June. However, the temporary work permits will expire by March 31, 2015 again leaving workers without long term status.
Interestingly, Mr Hall said there had been a reduction in corruption in Thailand since the May coup d’etat.
The Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, a non-government network of more than 200 recruitment agencies, is pushing to speed up the national verification process.
“The process is unclear and chaotic; you need to show ID and family registration, but in our country, in places like Mon, Kayin, Shan states there was fighting and families fled from their villages and don't have documents,” said U Ko Lay, a central executive committee member of the MOEAF. “How can these people be verified?”
MOEAF is mobilising about 50 of its member agencies in Thailand to collect information on migrant workers through a questionnaire, which will be sent to the Myanmar authorities.
“Workers are stuck in Thailand without status; we need to shorten the verification process,” said U Ko Lay. “The Labour Minister has said all Myanmar migrant workers need the right permanent passports, so they have to come back; we appreciate what he wants and we understand, with a temporary passport you can't travel the world.”
About 1000 Myanmar workers cross into Thailand every day to work illegally. The border stretches 1,300 miles (2,100 km) from Tachilek to Kawthaung and is easy to cross, said MOEAF joint secretary U Win Tun. “You have a border crossing with people lined up and 200 metres away people are crossing illegally.”
The federation divides its time between pushing for protection and status for Myanmar migrant workers in such countries as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan, and hosting “job fairs” throughout the country to promote working abroad “the correct way,” said U Ko Lay.
“The wrong way is human trafficking; they pay the broker from their area, the broker brings them by bus and they cross the border and do the job – but without protection,” he said. “The salary is not standard, there are no holidays, no medical treatment and when the worker has an accident they are simply left at the side of the road.”
Most job fairs have been held in Magwe and Sagaing, regions with high unemployment and many young people eager for work. MOEAF urges job fair participants to seek work abroad through licensed agencies. Despite being much cheaper than a broker's services, applying for documents and permits through legitimate channels is the less preferred option for many job seekers because it can take months. National verification requires approval from the ministries of Home Affairs, Immigration and Population and Labour, Employment and Social Security. Many people choose to spend upwards of K700,000 (US$700) to arrive in Thailand the next day, said U Ko Lay.
Every month 30,000 Myanmar migrant workers enter Thailand through legal channels, he said. In 2015 MOEAF will use banks in Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar for money transfers. They will enable the federation to compile figures on the amount being remitted to Myanmar by migrant workers, which is believed to total about $1 billion a year.
If workers represented by MOEAF-affiliated agencies are injured or experience issues with an employer the federation requires the agency to pay for the cost of repatriating the worker. If the agency cannot provide the entire amount, the federation will subsidise it.
“It the agency doesn't take responsibility for his worker, its licence will be revoked by the Ministry of Labour,” said U Ko Lay. “We tell the agencies you must be responsible for everything until the worker has finished his contract and comes back to Myanmar.”
Agencies must pay a small fee to the MOEAF for each worker it represents. The money funds travel costs for federation members who may need to resolve conflicts between workers and employers abroad and a hotline in Malaysia and Thailand.
The federation does not represent agencies that place workers in the Thai fishing industry, said U Ko Lay.
“Many parts of the world have banned Thai seafood because there have been so many cases of human rights abuses,” he said. “The seafood product associations in Thailand are realising they have to take care of their workers on the boats and want to make agreements with us [MOEAF].”
Next year may see greater protection for Myanmar workers on Thai fishing vessels, but in general, migrant workers' rights activists feel migration policy is at a standstill.
“There is a feeling migration has been put on the back burner; there is no discernible progress in how these issues are dealt with and no long term policy,” said Mr Hall.
U Sein Htay says there needs to be greater awareness in Myanmar about the plight of migrant workers.
“Ten percent of Myanmar people are migrant workers, but in Myanmar society we don't know about migration,” he said. “The government needs to work for migrant workers.”
This Article first appeared in the December 18, 2014 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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