Myanmar migrants and Thai workers gather shrimp at a seafood market in the coastal province of Samut Sakhon. (Photo: AFP)
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought financial hardships for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who have been unable to return to Thailand to resume their work, but those who are already in the country could now benefit in the long term.
Migrant workers currently in Thailand from these three countries will be allowed to remain until the end of 2021 rather than expected to return home next month based on a new visa extension scheme, the government has announced.
In all, more than 131,000 migrant workers will benefit from the scheme as part of a labor agreement between Thailand and its three neighbors, whose economies depend in part on Thailand’s far more robust economy.
Of the beneficiaries of the visa extension, nearly 73,000 migrant workers are from Myanmar while more than 34,000 others are from Cambodia and over 24,000 from Laos.
The Thai government has decided to relax visa extension rules for these migrant workers to help ease labor shortages in certain sectors, which have been hard hit by the pandemic.
Since early this year Thailand’s borders have been largely sealed to migrant workers, which has meant that hundreds of thousands of low-income people who depend on jobs in Thailand for their livelihoods have been unable to return.
Migrant workers from Myanmar comprise a significant part of Thailand’s labor force in several low-skilled occupations, including construction work, agricultural work and the seafood sector, yet a flare-up of Covid-19 in Myanmar has led Thai authorities to keep the country’s border with its western neighbor closed.
This has resulted in labor shortages in Thailand where several key sectors rely on migrant workers.
As of August last year, some six months before the pandemic began to make itself felt, nearly 2.9 million registered migrant workers were in Thailand, according to the Ministry of Labor.
Experts believe, however, that the actual figure was significantly higher as a large number of migrant workers were left undocumented in the informal sector.
“Women and men migrant workers make a substantial contribution to Thailand’s economic performance” with migrants producing up to 6.6 percent of Thailand’s GDP at one point while representing 4.7 per cent of the local workforce, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
“These migrants are predominately employed in low-skilled jobs, including fishing, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, domestic work, and other services,” the ILO notes.
However, despite the significant role migrant workers play in key sectors in Thailand, they are routinely required to work long hours in grueling conditions for low pay, labor rights activists say.
“Not only are Thailand’s migrant workers susceptible to discrimination, but they can be coerced into paying high recruitment fees on the way from their home country to secure a job,” said Darian McBain, global director of corporate affairs and sustainability at Thai Union, a Thailand-based producer of seafood products.
“This means migrants seeking legal employment might find themselves deeply indebted before the work begins — buried in debt that often takes years to repay.”
However, with few or no comparable job opportunities available back home, many people in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia still see the prospect of working in Thailand as preferable to remaining in their home countries.