Migrant workers pass the Thai-Myanmar border in an official service truck as they leave Thailand from Mae Sot in Tak province in northern Thailand. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Migrant workers in Thailand are among the most vulnerable as the country grapples with the Covid-19 crisis. The government, private sector and international supply-chain actors should act now to give them the protection they need – not only for their own safety and security, but also to help prevent the number of cases in wider Thai society spiraling out of control.

Why are migrant workers at risk?

  • Many live in crowded, unhygienic accommodation or dormitories where social distancing is challenging to implement.
  • They have limited access to protective equipment, including masks or sanitizer, and up-to-date prevention information because of language barriers and isolation.
  • Discrimination, a lack of resources and the fear of deportation mean they are less likely to be tested or treated.
  • Many have become jobless and are not yet eligible for state assistance, nor are they receiving unemployment or unfair-dismissal payments in practice. Re-employment options are scarce and changing employers is challenging. Food shortages and homelessness are therefore on the rise.
  • Migrant workers often lack freedom of movement because their passports are confiscated or because of their immigration status. They are therefore at greater risk of exploitation by corrupt officials and traffickers as they seek to return to their home countries or travel to find work irregularly and out of desperation. 
  • Border closures mean aspiring migrant workers already recruited, and those who returned home for document processing, are stranded in origin countries without employment, many heavily indebted and at risk of debt bondage.
  • Those working in factories producing key goods, such as gloves and other personal protective equipment, or canned or processed food, are unable to distance themselves physically on labor-intensive production lines. Infection risks are high, yet few are offered hardship benefits or incentives.
  • Migrant workers who manage to return home to their countries of birth often face discrimination and stigma.
  • Migrant workers across the world, and in Thailand also, are at increased risk of facing xenophobia and discrimination at this time as society grapples with this pandemic.

The wider impact

If the migrant community’s health is compromised and Covid-19 spreads quickly among the population, Thailand may struggle to contain the disease and prolong the wider public health, economic and social consequences for the country as a whole.

What should be done?

  • The Thai government should provide flexible, easily accessible and non-discriminatory health, social-security and additional welfare protections for migrant communities.
  • The private sector and employers should ensure migrant workers remain employed and healthy so that when the pandemic passes, a return to normal is feasible. Employers will thus avoid the need for new and expensive recruitment or labor shortages.
  • International buyers should take responsibility to bear part of the burden to ensure their suppliers are adhering to the highest standards and protecting migrant workers from poverty, ill-health and destitution.

Background

The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported there were nearly 2.8 million registered foreign migrant workers in Thailand in December 2019. But hundreds of thousands more – mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos – remain undocumented and are at greatest risk of exploitation.

An estimated 200,000 migrant workers suddenly left Thailand in the days before Covid-19 movement restrictions were tightened and borders closed. Migrant workers contribute significantly to the economic, social and cultural fabric of Thai society.

Andy Hall is a specialist in migrant worker rights based in Nepal who lived in Thailand from 2005 to 2016.

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