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Time we showed migrant workers the respect they deserve

For decades we have taken advantage, overworking and underpaying them as they helped help build our country

This time around Thailand needs to get this right, so that it doesn't need to keep fixing the problem each time it becomes a public issue.

Yes, we are talking about the effort to attract foreign workers to the country. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is trying to make it easier for foreign workers, the vast majority of whom are from neighbouring countries, to stay and work in Thailand.

Many of these migrant workers are undocumented and efforts are now underway to grant them legal status. The country received a wake-up call following reports of an imminent crackdown on illegal workers. The reports triggered an exodus among Cambodian workers, more than 200,000 of whom streamed back home over the border.

If anything, the incident was a lesson in how mishandling of information can cost the country dearly in economic terms. It also provided Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen with some cheap ammunition to attack the NCPO, which he accused of "violating" the rights of Cambodian workers in Thailand with this repatriation effort.

It was pretty obvious that Hun Sen was seeking to woo his domestic audience at the expense of NCPO feelings. But if the Thai junta doesn't mind, it doesn't matter.

Nevertheless, one thing the NCPO must care about is the need for a sense of justice in dealings with all foreign workers, regardless of their country of origin.

The US State Department's recent decision to downgrade Thailand's status to the bottom tier in its Trafficking in Persons report was also a wake-up call that we need serious action on this issue.

At a glance, the military's recently announced plan doesn't sound so bad. It includes the establishment of one-stop registration centres around the country for migrant workers, most of whom are from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

The first centre opened yesterday in Samut Sakhon, which has a high number of Myanmar workers. Twenty-two more provinces are set to open similar centres.

The NCPO says the idea is to boost transparency and curb exploitation of the workers by Thai officials and others.

The registration process is designed to be quick and easy, but the burden is essentially on the workers themselves to provide identification proving their country of origin. Hun Sen has helped by lowering the price of a Cambodian passport to the equivalent of Bt130.

However, registering workers is only one part of the solution.

Thai authorities need to think how to improve their quality of life, which is usually dire. This means better housing, affordable healthcare, education for their children, and so on. More than 10,000 children of Myanmar workers live in Samut Sakhon alone, according to one estimate.

We need to understand that these workers have feelings like anyone else, and a desire to be treated with respect and dignity.

If we afford them that basic right, our credibility and standing in the international community will rise. But let's not do this just for the ratings. Let's do this because it is the right thing to do. For decades we have taken advantage of these migrants, overworking and underpaying them as they helped help build our country. It's high time we showed them the respect they deserve.


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