Thai junta battles corruption in registering illegal migrants

In the past week more than 160,000 Cambodian migrant workers have fled after the Thai junta announced that it would arrest and deport all irregular foreign workers.

Thai junta battles corruption in registering illegal migrants

World Bulletin / News Desk

The Thai junta, struggling to deal with an exodus of Cambodian migrants on its eastern border, is now looking west to Myanmar, promising to improve the working conditions of workers there by legally registering them - a daunting task given their ruthless exploitation by Thailand's fishing industry.

For years, Myanmar workers pursuing employment in Thailand have had to pay brokers to smuggle them in, only to discover on arrival that they are not to work in the factories advertised, but instead sold to Thai fishing vessel owners as slave labor.

There, their problems stack up, with brokers resorting to what the Environmental Justice Foundation says is "corruption, coercion and violence in order to meet the demand,” while local corrupt policemen and politicians demand bribes to keep the workers from "further trouble."

Yaw Soe Win is one such laborer. This week - his hands and feet bruised, dressed in a pristine new white shirt that swallowed his thin sunburnt frame - he told the Anadolu Agency in the small Bangkok office of an NGO that he was unable even to cross the road for a noodle soup as he was so scared of an encounter with police officers.

Win said he was smuggled into Thailand having being promised a job in a food processing factory by a middleman, only to discover on arrival that things were not as they seemed.

"I ended up being sold for 26,000 baht (US$800) to a fishing boat owner in Songkhla [in Thailand's south],” he said. “I was treated like a slave... If I complained, I risked being tortured or even killed."

Win became one of the many laborers forced to work on Thai fishing boats, a job that involves working 20-hour days on the sea for months or even years on end - all under constant threat of injury or beatings from a Thai supervisor.

"But the worst was when I saw one of my co-worker fall in the sea. We were ordered to continue to work and prevented helping him," said Win. "He drowned. That is when I decided to escape.”

Junta representatives this week visited the coastal city of Samut Sakhon, determined to calm the fears of workers in the fishing and seafood industries that they too may soon be forced to leave the kingdom, along with those of bosses concerned of a labor shortage.

In the past week more than 160,000 Cambodian migrant workers have fled after the Thai junta announced that it would arrest and deport all irregular foreign workers.

The junta now claims it was misunderstood, spokesman Colonel Winthai Suwaree telling Myanmar migrants Monday that they merely wanted to re-regulate migrant labor to correctly register workers.

"[Then] they can live and work in Thailand and receive proper work benefits including health care," he added.

It's a brave move, for if carried out in Thailand's dirty fishing industry it is expected to encounter fierce resistance as corrupt policemen and local officials, mafia-like broker networks and boat owners are colluding to exploit the 300,000 mostly illegal Myanmar migrants on Thai trawlers, who NGOs say are being worked to the bone.

Hong Sar Na, deputy-director of Migrant Worker Rights Network - a Samut Sakhon based NGO protecting Myanmar workers’ rights - told AA in her office over a workers' library on Samut Sakhon back street that they frequently have to work over 20 hours a day in very harsh conditions - often getting absolutely no payment for their work.

"Some get sea-sick and are threatened by the Thai supervisor that they will be thrown into the sea. Some are also beaten,” Hong added.

The local police force is also cashing in, selling migrant workers “protection cards” which they quickly flash to other officers if they are threatened with arrest and deportation.

Sompong Srakaew, director of the Labour Rights Promotion Network, told AA that those in charge of "implementing the law are simply not doing it".

He frequently breaks off from his conversation with AA to answer calls from yet another immigrant laborer caught in difficulty.

"They are simply using the weaknesses of Thai law to threaten workers in order to extort money from them... This system of corruption is a huge obstacle,” he added.

Andy Hall, a migration policy expert from the Institute for Population and Social Research at Thailand’s Mahidol University, told AA that it's not just corrupt cops fighting for the migrant's tiny purse, on Thailand's borders its practically open hour on the laborers.

"Immigration officials, some ministry of labor officials and some ministry of interior are also involved, as well as employers and brokers," he said. "They are all competing to get money out of the migrants."

Towards the end of this weeks' visit to the province, General Sirichai Disthakul - who led the junta's delegation - warned that if “influential figures” didn't stop exploiting the migrant labor they would “face harsh action.”

Quite what that action is remains to be seen.

If the Junta "wants to address migration, then great, do it!" says Hall. "But human security needs to be prioritized alongside national security and economic security."

Güncelleme Tarihi: 21 Haziran 2014, 10:44