Thailand’s new labour regulations cause an exodus of foreign workers
by Weena Kowitwanij

By the end of June, some 60,000 migrants left Thailand for fear of sanctions. Undocumented foreign workers face fines that top US$ 2,000 and five years in prison with those from Myanmar the most affected. Some Thai officials extort money from those leaving. The exodus is having negative effects on Thailand’s economy.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Tens of thousands of migrant workers, most from Myanmar, have fled Thailand following the adoption of new labour regulations by the country’s military government on 23 June.

As the workers make their way home, some are being illegally asked to pay money at checkpoints, which has led the Myanmar government to make an official protest. The exodus is also having a negative impact on some sectors of Thailand’s economy.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, Thailand has more than 3 million migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Since it took over in a military coup in 2014, the ruling junta has tried to regulate the foreign workforce, moved in part by media reports of the exploitation of undocumented workers.

The new law imposes fines on undocumented workers ranging from US$ 1,000 to more than US$ 2,000 as well as up to five years in prison. The net effect has been that about 60,000 workers left between 23 and 28 June, a number that is rising.

Following reports about the exodus, Thailand issued a 120-day delay in enforcing parts of the decree. The latter includes fines of up to 800,000 baht (US$ 24,000) for employers who hire undocumented foreign workers.

Migrants from Myanmar are the most affected. Since 29 June, more re than 16,000 people, including both legal and undocumented migrants, have returned home.

Thai government trucks have been taking workers to the Myanmar town of Myawaddy, 246 km (153 miles) east of Yangon, and opposite the Thai town of Mae Sot, where they are met by Myanmar Labour Ministry officials who have heard scores of complaints about having to pay some money to Thai officers at checkpoints in Muang District, Tak province.

As migrants arrive home, their accounts of the situation have prompted Myanmar authorities to react. Myawaddy Governor Bunthun Lue wrote to Tak provincial authorities to look into the allegations.

On Sunday, Thai Interior Deputy Undersecretary Prayoon Rattanasaenee called on the governor to investigate the claims. He also told border officials not to ask money from workers but instead assist them with water and food at the local public health centre.

In parallel, Third Army Chief Lt Gen Vijak Siribansop announced an in-depth investigation is under way.

Meanwhile, as they are implemented, the new labour regulations are having a negative impact on Thailand's economy. Business groups say the exodus is already hitting some companies that depend on labour from the poorer neighbouring countries.

In Bangkok, an executive at a construction company said as many as 80 per cent of workers had left some of its building sites. Fishing groups also voiced concern, saying foreign workers were essential for nearly 30,000 boats.

"The private sector is in shock," said Tanit Sorat, vice chairman of Employers' Confederation of Thailand. "These are jobs that Thais will not do so if there is a labour shortage businesses cannot move forward."