Broad support from political parties, trade unions and associations to the proposal to introduce to criminalize illicit brokering of labor based on the exploitation of the work.
A bill providing for the offense of “illegal hiring” was presented to the Senate by 30 signatories from all political parties. The initiative, which aims to address the problem of illicit brokering of labor based on the exploitation of the work, especially migrants, has received a wide acclaim from the trade unions and social associations.
In January of this year a National Campaign, entitled “STOP CAPORALATO” was launched. It was promoted by the trade unions, FILLEA-CGIL and FLAI-CGIL.
Many activities were organized in various regions and provinces all across Italy, from north to south, to support this national campaign. Now, with this bill, the campaign received a big boost. CAPORALATO is an insidious phenomenon that affects 550,000 migrant workers every year. The approval of this bill, with the support of various parliamentary political forces, would be an important element in the context of immigration laws and to abolish slavery in the work place.
For FILLEA-CGIL, the bill, if passed would also put a big dent in the fast growing interest of criminal organizations in this field. According to the union, due to the economic crisis, lack of investment, fragmentation and the system of race to the bottom, businesses have been able to invest in crime-related money to clean up and undisturbed own businesses. And the last big business is the management of labor, with precisely 150,000 workers in the construction sector managed by construction foremen. The National Campaign will continue in the coming months until the law is approved.
In 2009, Thailand imposed a February 2010 deadline for 1.3 million registered migrants from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, who originally entered the country ‘illegally,’ to complete nationality verification (NV) and become fully ‘legal’. Those missing this deadline were threatened with deportation.
Few workers had completed NV a month before this deadline due to fear, lack of information, unregulated broker costs and confusion. The Cabinet then affirmed the deadline but changed the rules. Migrants had to enter NV by February 2010 but completing the process would be extended until 2012.
Over 930, 000 migrants met the NV deadline but 300, 000 fell through the net. Given a million undocumented migrants were already in the country but not entitled to enter NV, just over 17 months ago the majority of migrants in Thailand were undocumented.
An abusive and un-transparent crackdown that followed the NV deadline saw migrants spinning into circles of arrest and extortion coupled with deportation abuse in Ranong and Mae Sot. This all rapidly brought increasing global attention to the suffering of migrants in Thailand.
Migration management had failed to ensure migrant regularisation, planned for more than a decade, was achieved. Migrant rights protection lagged far behind international standards and domestic law.
Thailand’s migration landscape seems to have changed for the better since 2010. A policy u-turn allowing an amnesty from June 15th to July 14th 2011 saw a million undocumented migrants register in a relatively successful regularisation push. The process was employer led and information to migrants remained very scare but most migrants (2 million) are likely now registered anyhow.
After an initial reluctance to take part in NV, over half a million migrants from Burma now possess temporary passports which, as of July 1st 2011, are valid for up to 6 years. Migrants passing NV have more confidence travelling in Thailand unhindered (with notable exceptions). For Thai speakers (driving tests are still only in Thai, English, Japanese and Chinese) they can even legally ride motorbikes. Access to expansive systems of social protection is apparently guaranteed.
The changes in Thai migration management can be explained by employers’ insistence to the government that low skilled labour shortages existed and needed to be addressed. The Board of Investment (BoI) relaxed rules for hiring low skilled migrants in BoI registered companies in 2009.
Domestic and increasingly international media coverage of systematic rights abuses facing migrants and effective rights groups campaigning and UN/diplomatic pressure played a role in moving things forward too. Appalling stories from fisheries workers meant this sector remained under close scrutiny.
Burma seems to have been an important factor also. Senior Thai officials report increased cooperation offered by the Burmese government to facilitate NV of migrants. Firstly an NV center was transferred from Kawthaung to Ranong which, although officially to ensure ‘safety’ during the monsoon season, remains open. Burma issued some basic leaflets to explain NV to its fearful citizens too.
The New Light of Myanmar, mouthpiece of the Burmese authorities, reported how officials lobbied the Thais to re-open registration for its workers. The Burmese Embassy provided support to road accident victims and mediated labour disputes in Thailand. Many still view such moves with deep suspicion however, questioning the motives of this apparent benevolence.
The scales seem close to tipping towards increased protection for migrants working in Thailand. But it also remains unclear whether the coming months will see positive gains increase or whether there will be a strong return to security centric economic and social exploitation that migrants still experience.
The official policy of the Thai Government remains clear. Once migrants pass NV they are entitled to the same labour rights as Thais. Most domestic law never excluded migrants from coverage however and more effort will be required to ensure this becomes reality. Multiple social, cultural and economic factors that ensure migrants are one of the most powerless groups in Thailand remain unaddressed.
Socially, with notable exceptions, migrants remain the ‘other’ in Thailand. Many confess to having no or few Thai friends and few Thai language skills as their communities remain distinctly separate. Few policy makers broach the issue of migrant integration into society, even in the short-term. Marriage of migrants remains restricted; child-birth and pregnancy hot topics. Provision of specific budget to improve the situation of migrant communities is fraught with sensitivities.
Social debate on migrants lags far behind changed situations. Migrants now ‘fully legal’ with passports generally remain viewed, even by officials, as no different to ‘illegals’ without any documents at all. The fundamental right to organise and collectively bargain is still denied to migrants.
Culturally migrants from Burma, Cambodia and Laos remain rungs lower on Thailand’s hierarchy than native Thais. Karmic beliefs, both by Thais and migrants, lessen moral disgust at exploitation and push responsibility onto individuals who ‘entered illegally’ or ‘failed to protect themselves.’
Economically, migrants caught in a grey area of law and landscape have provided a cheap source of labour for 2 decades for employers who want to keep profits high, labour costs low and choose not to hire Thais or increase their productivity. Significant numbers of migrants still take home less than US$3 a day, particularly in border areas. Even in export certified workplaces, unlawful deductions and abusive mafia like broker networks mean average daily wages remain low.
Smuggling of workers continues. There is a lack of forward momentum in formal worker import schemes beset by excessive broker costs, lack of regulation and incompetence or intransigence of home countries which remains a key to undermining regularisation plans. Trafficking remains a stain on Thai society, as the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons is surely seeing at this time.
The social security system applied to ‘legal’ migrants seems worryingly inaccessible. Just a few days ago, a Burmese migrant who had passed NV lost his life when his family could not pay for his medical treatment and his employer refused to respond for costs or register him for social security.
National and human security continues to be strongly undermined in a lawless zone of informality involving arrest, extortion and deportation of migrants as corruption, trafficking, forced labour and sexual abuse remain rife. Widespread sale of 500-600 Baht per month protection cards continue in most migrant communities. Genuine regulation of brokers remains almost entirely absent.
A recent survey by ILO painted a negative picture of host communities across Asia, including Thailand, whose perceptions of migrants remain tainted and ill-informed. The response is an expensive private sector marketing strategy to improve the image of migrants and challenge stigma.
Although useful work, particularly with a focus on youth, another survey UN agencies are unlikely to undertake would be studying perceptions of leaders of these same societies towards migrants. There is a need to explore vested interests at stake really preventing change. Thai communities literally ‘taken over’ by migrants without consultation require a genuine response and understanding too.
As the new administration unveils its policies, a well thought out long term migration policy for Thailand that equally promotes economic, national and human security gains for Thais and migrants and which creates a holistic, independent and effective migration management body is much needed.
Civil society, UN agencies and diplomats need to pressure Thai authorities to promote migrant rights and transparent migration management. Domestic media needs to understand migration debates better and more objectively whilst refusing to play the political migration card in its coverage.
Home countries of migrants (particularly Burma) need to increase effort to protect their workers in Thailand and work more effectively with the Thai government to this end. Regularisation processes need to be kept effective, cost efficient and closely monitored for abuse.
There is hope even more light will shine on the millions of migrants in Thailand in the coming days and months as seems to have been the case in the past year. But the clouds that could easily place these workers back into the darkness of the past 2 decades remain worryingly close at hand.
Opinion Editorial by Andy Hall.
*Andy Hall is a Foreign Expert at the Mahidol Migration Centre and a Consultant to the Human Rights and Development Foundation.
Working hard twelve hours a day cutting trees or debarking, being called names by supervisors, being disciplined by a video camera to work faster and not being paid for what they were promised. Injuries were common as many of the workers had not received any training on how to work with a chainsaw. The injured workers were sent back home in mini buses and the new “healthy and strong ones” replaced the injured.
These are some experiences of former Romanian migrant workers who had worked in the forestry sector in the Czech Republic. They were employed by Wood Servis Praha s.r.o., subcontracted by Madera Servicio s.r.o., which was further subcontracted by one of the biggest Czech forestry companies—LESS & FOREST s.r.o.
The BWI Connect Migration blog had posted pieces related to the exploitation of migrant workers from Vietnam, Romania, Slovakia and other countries by Czech companies in 2009 and 2010. This summer additional information on the experience of migrant workers was gathered in Romania. Some of these workers have joined the legal case against the representatives of some of the companies continually exploiting migrant workers in Czech forestry.
The workers that we interviewed this summer were from the Romanian region of Covasna. They were promised from 1,300 to 1,700 Euros per month. This indeed was tempting as one month of work would have equaled an average yearly wage in Romania. In the end some of the luckier ones received 600 or 700 Euros per month for at least a part of their work period. The less lucky ones received some money for the first month of work. After that, they received only weekly food allowances of about 40 Euros and towards the end of the season they did not even receive this.
The workers engaged in frequent work stoppages to force the boss(es) to pay the wages, demand labour contracts and improve working and work safety conditions. During these short strikes their boss confirmed relatively high wages (up to 1,200 Euros plus additional money for drivers). It was somewhat lower than what the workers were originally promised at the time of recruitment in Romania but still much higher than what the workers were paid in the end. However, the workers were not always successful in their protests especially without being organised, fragmented by ethnicity, not being able to communicate among each other with one language and not supported externally.
When the workers threatened to publicise widely the case in Romania on the web, which according to them could have resulted in no one being interested in working for the Czech company, they got this reply from the “big boss”: “I don´t care if you publicise it anywhere. Next time we´ll bring workers from the Caucasus, there they don´t have any internet”.
In 2011 recruiting for the same Czech companies continued in Romania (albeit in different regions), Hungary and other countries. It remains to be seen what the pay and working conditions will have been for this year, however, it can be said for now that one of the Czech companies already got a fine from the Labour Inspectorate for using labour contracts which were in breach of the Czech Labour Code. The police in the Czech Republic (as well as in Romania) is still investigating the case.
What could, however, be damaging for a successful investigation of the case is the fact that in summer the Prague criminal police (one of the police agencies involved in the investigation) decided to fragment the case to local police departments all over the country based on where the labour contracts were signed (if they were at all). According to the Prague attorneys representing the workers, the only way for an efficient investigation would be to set up one police team from different agencies and not to fragment the case in separate investigations.
This year is also a testing year for the functioning of the FSC certification in terms of how it can protect workers´ rights in one of the places where forestry work has been taking place. Learning about the case of exploited migrant workers, the Krkonoše National Park, which is FSC-certified, signed in spring 2011 a supplement to the current contract it has with its contractor (LESS & FOREST s.r.o.) for a big forestry work EU-funded project. It states that this contract can be terminated in case of violations of the Labour Code not only with the employees of the principal contractor but also with its subcontractors.
This is an example of a partial and yet unclear victory in our ongoing campaign organised with a number of mostly Prague-based NGOs and trade unions to improve the conditions of the subcontract migrant workers. The long-term effort, however, depends to a large extent on the willingness of the respective state authorities as well as national (less corrupt) politicians. From this perspective the Krkonose National Park has tried to face this issue unlike the much more important Lesy ?eské republiky (State Forestry Agency). The Lesy ?eské republiky issued a press release this year stating that “workers should be paid” but has not assumed any responsibility for the working conditions of the subcontract workers and how these are co-created by the public tenders organised by the Lesy ?eské republiky.
More information about experience of migrant workers from Romania in an article in the Prague Post.
Initiative for the Rights of Migrant Workers in the Czech Republic
The journey to Romania was supported by the Open Society Fund Prague.