As I browse through the interminable counters at Bangkok airport displaying colourful souvenirs made in Thailand, I cannot help but wonder who sewed the intricate embroidery on the scarf I’m about to spend my last few Thai Baht on. A heaven for bargain hunters, Bangkok is sprawling with malls and marketplaces selling everything from fake Gucci bags and gold watches to the latest electronic gadgets. As long as you are prepared to negotiate fiercely, you can walk away with some great deals, but your purchases may have come at a price for some. As part of an STR research project on South-South labour migration, I have spent a week in Thailand meeting with local NGOs, trade unions and workers to shed light on some of the challenges faced by migrants in the country.
There are around 1.2 Million migrant workers from Myanmar, Lao and Cambodia officially registered in Thailand and a further 1.2 Million undocumented workers according to International Organisation for Migration estimates. Most of these workers –around 70%– are from Myanmar and work in the construction and fishing industries. However, my research revealed that in reality, most industries using low-skilled labour in Thailand have a large proportion of migrants in their workforce, the majority of whom have entered the country illegally. This is true for the seafood processing, apparel and other manufacturing industries that produce goods for the export markets. Many pay carriers to take them across the border by boat to Mae Sot, in the Tak province where they work in factories for less than 100 Baht a day, well below the minimum wage. Their illegal status makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and many of them face severe human rights violations and work in conditions akin to slavery.
While they might be better off than their undocumented counterparts, documented workers are not sheltered from abuse in the workplace. I met several workers who had had their passports and work permits confiscated by their employer, a common practice in Thailand. Document retention does not only bind migrants to a workplace, it might also get them into trouble with the Thai authorities. If they are stopped by the police and cannot show a valid work permit, migrants may face extortion or arrest. A report published in 2010 by Human Rights Watch paints a depressing picture of the role of the Thai authorities in exploiting migrant workers.
While the outlook may seem bleak for migrant workers in Thailand, the type of issues they face are no different from the ones faced by migrants in other labour receiving countries. Over the next few months, our team will be travelling to several more countries in Asia and the Middle East to conduct further research on labour sending and receiving countries. Follow me on twitter @Leiloucha92 to find out more about my next destination.