On Labour Day, the labourers ignored

opinion May 02, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

Has the government finally stopped resisting foreign pressure to take better care of migrant workers?

The world yesterday commemorated International Labour Day, honouring an essential segment of society whose importance most people in Thailand tend to overlook – despite widespread media coverage in recent years regarding gross violations of the rights of the 60,000-plus low-skilled labourers, mainly foreign migrants, working in this country.

Concerns about these abuses echoed through the overseas press, to which private firms and government agencies abroad responded with a range of actions that included threats of economic sanctions and boycotts of Thai seafood products, based on humanitarian grounds.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has just released a video to be distributed among foreign workers in Thailand, explaining crucial information in Thai, Khmer and Burmese. “Ensuring that they are aware of their rights and know how to find help to protect them is essential to preventing and ending abusive labour practices,” the organisation declared yesterday. The campaign is part of the Ship to Shore Rights Project in which the European Union, International Organisation for Migration and United States Agency for International Development are collaborating.

The project is designed to help the Thai government overcome issues and meet challenges. We are doubtful that the government would be the slightest bit interested if not for the embarrassing reports and subsequent threats coming from overseas. The initial reaction from Bangkok was harsh, with the Prayut Chan-o-cha government lashing out at Thai reporters for highlighting abuses and pointing out the damage an international boycott would do to the domestic fishing industry. In other words, the government placed the finances of a business sector above the humanitarian needs of people working in that sector.

This government has liked to present itself as caring and benevolent soldiers who rescued Thailand from a political crisis. It has, unfortunately, missed a good opportunity to be seen as soldiers who adhere to international norms rather than paying them lip service. Eventually, the huffing and puffing yielded to a pledge to seek an outcome satisfactory to the international community so that Thai exports would not be blocked.

Legislation was passed, but much work remains to be done. As an example, according to last month’s ILO Ship to Shore Rights survey on working conditions in the Thai fishing and seafood-processing sectors, only 26 per cent of workers who experienced labour violations had sought help. “Bringing worker questions and complaints to the attention of the authorities for action is a key goal for project partners,” the ILO said. 

Thai leaders tend to show respect for concepts of global and regional unity when they’re onstage at foreign forums. But when it comes to reforming this backbreaking industry, which has been characterised as modern-day slavery, they withdraw into a protective shell and demonstrate disdain for outside criticism and guidance. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a whole has failed in this regard, crushing the rights of individuals in its rush to build regional strength. 

Thais prefer to forget that cheap foreign labour enabled this country to advance rapidly in recent decades. We comfort ourselves by saying we provide them jobs, so they shouldn’t complain. Our eyes are on regional and global glory, not on integrity or compassion.