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Historical bias against neighbouring nations a burden for migrant workers

A worker from Myanmar at Mahachai Market.

A worker from Myanmar at Mahachai Market.

Social activist Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a key person at the Migrant Working Group (MWG), was among five people just named as outstanding human rights defenders by the Somchai Neelapaijit Memorial Foundation. He answered questions by The Nation on Sunday's Pravit Rojanaphruk about the plight of migrant workers in Thailand. Excerpts:

What do you think of the Labour Ministry's considering a policy to force pregnant migrant workers back to their home countries to deliver their babies?

It reflects the bias of the Thai state towards migrant workers. It also only sees them as labour and a burden to Thailand and fails to see them as human.

This idea doesn't go in line with solving the problem of human trafficking, as mentioned by the ministry, but will only add more problems. This is not the first time that the Thai state is thinking like this, but every time they come up with such ideas, they always face opposition from those in the academia and NGOs, and yet almost every government comes up with similar ideas.

Why doesn't such a policy, if imposed, not cover pregnant white-collar expatriates from better-off nations with better salaries?

The Labour Ministry thinks they can take care of themselves. Also, their number may not be as high as the three neighbouring countries.

In other words, they value white-collar workers more than blue-collar workers.

What are the main problems facing migrant workers to date?

It is still mostly about exploitation and labour rights violation, be it in wages, working conditions or violation of basic rights, such as confiscation of Identification Cards so they cannot travel [outside the province]. These are long-standing problems.

There's also the problem with enforcement of the law that protects migrant workers, which is good but hardly enforced. The lack of interpretation and documents in the language of the migrant workers, the lack of rights to unionise and lastly, the negative attitude towards migrant workers due to the historic view of neighbouring states as enemies.

Why do these migrant workers, particularly in Bangkok, seem "invisible", unlike Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, where they can congregate and have a picnic in the city centre every Sunday?

There's two main issues. First, the Thai middle class in the city views migrant workers as a threat or posing a problem to them. This includes the historical and ethnic bias, as mentioned. It has resulted in migrant workers not being able to fully reveal themselves, as those around them may not be happy or it may lead to troubles. Secondly, it's about the safety of migrant workers from some government officials, who seek to exploit and extort money from them.

Are the recent political changes in Burma positive for the more than two million migrant workers in Thailand?

At one level, I see more hope for them. At least they will feel more secure to return home. I secretly wish these workers will one day become a force for development, democracy, human rights and liberty in Burma because they have learnt quite a bit from their experience in Thailand.

How is the historical animosity between Thailand and its neighbours playing out in the treatment of migrant workers here?

As far as I know, the factor ranks around the top. It makes a not-so-small number of Thais have negative impressions of people from Burma. Often, it's not just a negative view but hatred and distrust, which leads to violation of rights and disdain when these people have been violated.

What would you like to say to Thais who look at migrant workers with distrust, or see them as stealing jobs from Thais, or when bearing a child in the Kingdom they become a burden for Thailand?

First, they are human just like us. They, like Thais, have to struggle to make ends meet and maintain their human dignity. Most who I've come across have a positive view of Thai people unless they are those who've been violated or harmed.

For the past 20 years, they have become a major cog in Thai economic development. I believe that without them many businesses may be in trouble. Anyone could end up becoming migrant workers, so we should be compassionate and create a society that can co-exist with diversity.


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