Making and unmaking a mess

opinion July 16, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Considering the impact of migrant labour on the economy, The govt should have put more thought into the new law



One has to wonder if Thai government agencies ever really talk to one another before they undertake drastic measures, supposedly for the good of the country.

The latest move – more a knee-jerk reaction – by the government to better manage migrant workers has put millions of these hardworking people and their employers in a chaotic situation. The new labour law went into effect on June 23. It includes a threat to fine employers at least Bt400,000 for every illegal worker they hire.

The private sector is out of the loop in this. They, too, must do more to create a better understanding among the foreign nationals they hire and the government agencies. It is not proper for them to wait until the last minute and then cry foul.

As expected, key sectors have been hit by this exodus of workers. These include construction workers in the capital, fisheries in the South and agriculture in border areas. All are facing shortages of labour because of this drastic move that has sent many workers packing to the border and back to their country of origin – Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The affected projects include the construction of the Red Line railway (Bang Sue-Rangsit), work on which has almost come to a standstill after many Myanmar workers left their work to reprocess their documents.

The frustrating part was that many of them did not need to go back because they had proper working papers with them – the so-called “pink card”. They wrongly assumed that their “pink card” was no longer valid under the new law. This is a sad reflection on the lack of proper communication from the government and the employers.

Not all sectors that hired foreign workers were affected. Those who can afford to hire legal workers can process the required document. But not everybody can or has the knowhow. And this is where the local government agency, namely officials from the Labour Ministry, will have to work harder to create understanding with a wide range of sectors – from grocery stores and restaurants to petrol stations and store clerks – that hire foreign workers.

Because of the chaos, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha had to invoke his special powers under Article 44 to defer the enforcement of four key controversial articles of the foreign labour law until the end of the year. The articles prescribe much harsher penalties against offending migrants and their employers.

Unfortunately, for many companies, the temporary freeze came too late as thousands of workers – legal and illegal – had already packed their bags and were well on their way to their respective countries to process or their documents.

According to one estimate, more than 50,000 migrant workers reportedly have returned home since last month, mostly to Myanmar and Cambodia.

Prayut tried to calm growing fears that these workers who returned to their country would return. He cited demand for workers in the country as a reason.

Perhaps this chaotic period was a blessing in disguise. The Thai government and the private sector should use this moment and the lesson they have learned to do some serious soul-searching.

We need to think deeply about our needs and take note of what the absence of foreign workers means for our economy and our country.

We need to reflect on how the foreign labourers would want to be treated and how we actually treat them. One can only hope that we as a society as well as the government understand that at the end of the day, everybody wants to be treated with fairness and dignity. So let this moment of pause be a time to reflect on these things.

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