The Nation



Time we gave migrant workers a fair deal

With awful working conditions and little or no healthcare or education, 80 per cent of Myanmar migrants say they are preparing to return home

Most of us are familiar with the term "ha chao gin kham" - looking for income in the morning so we can eat in the evening.

But for foreign migrant workers from neighbouring countries, this old saying is a brutal reality. Like most of us, they want to better their lot. And so they come to Thailand and take up back-breaking jobs that are shunned by many of us Thais.

The vast majority demand little more than food and shelter. Their working conditions fall well below national and international norms. Few complain, because it's better then anything they can find back home. But it doesn't make it right, to expose them to awful conditions and treatment.

According to the Migrant Working Group, nearly half a million workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have registered with the Thai government since January, but only half of them can access healthcare at state hospitals.

While it is government policy to allow migrant workers to buy health insurance and access medical services, many obstacles remain before they are able to get treatment at state hospitals.

Of course, many foreign workers cannot even afford to buy health insurance, while others are kept off the government radar by unscrupulous employers. Migrant workers also face difficulties accessing social and medical benefits under the Social Security Fund. To date, only 210,668 migrant workers have registered with this fund. To qualify for a pension, you need to have been a member of the fund for more than 15 years.

Yet migrant workers can only lawfully stay in Thailand for four years.

Besides access to medical services, children of migrant workers also face obstacles in accessing education at state schools, as they do not have citizenship documents. An estimated 300,000 migrant children live in Thailand with their parents, but only 56,582 of them are permitted to enter state schools.

Migrant children left without an education are at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking and being forced to work in factories.

About 29 factories in Thailand were found to have used child migrants as forced labour, according to a report published by the US government last year,

If humanitarian concern is not motivation enough, Thailand should look at the economics of this issue.

The region is set to becomes borderless in 2015, when nations will make it easier for workers to move about. With more freedom of movement, it should surprise no one if Myanmar migrants - who currently form the largest bloc of foreign workers in Thailand -decide to relocate elsewhere, returning to their own country, perhaps.

According to a recent survey by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), 80 per cent of the Myanmar workers said they would like to return home. Moreover, 41 per cent of these are planning to do so within the next five years to make up for a shortage of workers amid Myanmar's economic boom.

If Thailand wants to keep these workers, perhaps it should think about making them a better offer. If we can't see it in our hearts to do the right thing, we should look at economic bottom line. Many of us are better off (and some of us rich) because of the cheap labour that migrants provide.

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