Thailand Has A Strange Love/Hate Relationship With Illegal Migrants. It Fears Them But Needs Them As Well
Hani Sana writes from Bangkok: If the European Union thinks it has a problem with illegal migrant workers, think again. Thailand is in a much more difficult position. There are about two million and they make up about 10 per cent of the labour force, contributing 6.2 per cent of the country’s Gross National Product. They work in labour intensive industries such as fishing and clothing. The Thai government has a love/hate relationship with migrants. On the one hand, it is concerned that if the flow of illegals is not slowed down, some areas of the country will be overrun with immigrants from Myanmar: they account for the great majority of migrants with the rest coming from Cambodia and Laos. On the other hand, the Thai economy desperately needs migrant workers. Just as in Texas, New Mexico and California, employers welcome them. As they are illegal, they work for less and under appalling conditions. If they complain they are handed over to the police as illegals and liable to deportation. Illegal migrants earn less than $4 a day but those who are registered earn about double this. The minimum wage in Thailand is to rise to $10 a day next month. Naturally the authorities are concerned that this could act as a magnet for those on very low wages in their home country. So Bangkok has decreed that all migrant workers have to be registered with the authorities. About half already are but that leaves about a million who are not.
Registration is complicated and expensive. Many migrants can simply not afford the fees. So what is to happen to them? Technically they will be deported but Thailand has to consider the effect of sending hundreds of thousands back to Myanmar. That country is just beginning a process of economic reform and could simply not cope with such numbers. So Thailand, if it is to help Myanmar along the road of reform, is in a fix.
The problem with the minimum wage and labour legislation is that it is not being implemented by many employers. This is especially so along the Thai-Myanmar border where there hundreds of garment factories working 24 hours a day. This is illegal but if an inspector calls the workers say that they are only employed 12 hours a day. Money often changes hands. Many of these factories are not even registered with the authorities. The tactic used by middlemen to recruit migrant labour is to charge an upfront fee. The worker then has to pay it off from his wages. He then runs into debt to cover living expenses. So the treadmill begins again.
Thailand’s economy is recovering well from last year’s floods. Cheap labour is in demand. If an employer has a choice of paying a Thai worker $10 a day or an illegal $4 a day one does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out which worker he will employ. The more labour intensive the industry the greater the demand for migrant labour.
Human Rights Watch wrings its hands but can only plead with the Thai government to enforce existing legislation and speed up the process of registering illegals. The hope is that the Myanmar economy will take off and there will be a great demand for low cost labour. This would staunch the flow of illegals to Thailand.
All governments have a schizophrenic attitude to illegal migrants. On the one hand they fear being overrun by foreigners but on the other hand they need incoming workers. This is especially true in the European Union where the birth rate is not high enough to replace those dying. Russia also needs millions of migrant workers. Understandably local workers resent illegals because they force down wages. However employers love them. If economies are to grow there is only one solution: more migrant labour. Once this is accepted perhaps they will be better treated.