Thailand’s four million migrants: should I stay or should I go?

Pim Kemasingki reports on how Covid-19 has trapped Thailand's migrant workers between a rock and a hard place.

By | Fri 1 May 2020

“It is estimated that around 20% of the Chiang Mai population are migrant workers,” said Dave Mathieson, a Yangon-based independent analyst. “Many of these people are really struggling now as they are becoming increasingly vulnerable, relying on NGOs and churches for support.”

According to a report by the Thailand-based Foundation for Education and Development (FED), published on the 27th April this year, “Migrant workers face many problems abroad, and even those that have managed to return home are ostracised due to their travels. With limited health education and general information, some communities in Myanmar are afraid of returning migrants. Migrants have been dismissed, forced to leave, or had working hours reduced. New-arrival workers with limited experience have mostly been fired. Unfortunately no one can predict with certainty when jobs will resume. Most employers continue to support skilled or experienced migrants, especially those working in hotels and the tourism industry, through provision of room and board. Fortunately, migrants who have been working in the agriculture sector, most notably rubber and palm oil, are not yet directly affected by the situation, with regular hours and pay.”

In spite of the Thai government’s estimate that by 25th March 60,000 migrants had left Thailand as well as the labour attaché office in Thailand announcing that 16,324 more Myanmar migrant workers have registered online to return to Myanmar, which will be facilitated through the Myawady-Mae Sot border on the 1st of May causing no small amount of panic in Myanmar, Mathieson doesn’t believe that there will be a mass exodus as feared by some.

Covid 19 migrant workers in Chiang Mai deciding on whether to return home

“Some people in Myanmar are freaking out assuming that all migrant workers will come back because it is safer at home,” continued Mathieson. “And according to the Thai government there are between two to four million migrant workers in Thailand, with the estimate being closer to four million. Should they all leave Thailand, that would seriously affect the country’s economic recovery post-COVID. But in spite of the fear, they forget that most of these people left home because home isn’t safe and they have a job here. So if you are supporting your family in Myanmar and your Thai employer is saying, ‘Don’t leave, because if you do my business is gone’, and they are provided with accommodation and food to live on, then why would they return to the uncertainty of home? The truth is that Thailand relies massively on migrant workers, whether it’s the seafood, tourism, agriculture, construction or domestic sectors. For level headed people looking at the economic impact of the crisis they know that they need these people to stay and if we want an early recovery for the economy we need them.”

According to a report published by the Mekong Migrant Network (MMN) earlier this month, the government has been pushing policies to support migrant workers. For instance while all land borders were closed ahead of the Emergency Decree on 23rd March, many have since reopened in response to the weight of migrants attempting to cross. The next day, the Thai cabinet approved measures to ease immigration regulations to allow registered migrant workers and their children to extend their right to remain and work in the country until June 30. On the same day, the Thai Cabinet also approved draft Ministerial Regulations and Notifications regarding compensation and relief measures for employers and employees registered with the Social Security Fund (SSF). However, MMN warns that, “while these measures are welcomed, they do not go far enough to help those who face a loss of livelihood due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A significant number of migrant workers will not qualify for these government initiatives as they are either undocumented or ineligible to register since the SSF excludes many migrant occupations on the grounds that they are in the informal sector.”

“Migrant workers are essential to the economy but without jobs they are suffering,” said Brahm Press, Director of Migrant Assistance Program Foundation (MAP) who has spent the past 20 years working for the rights of migrant workers. “They are not receiving support from employers or the government. This means that they are very vulnerable to debt, and that is the main concern. They may be able to purchase food and necessities but they will be going into debt in order to do so and will be vulnerable to exploitation. There are many groups like us doing our bit to help. We have various online channels we use to reach a few thousand migrant workers a day offering them policy updates, infographics on COVID-19 protocols and other information. The Shan community is also very strong here and they support their most vulnerable. The problem is that if many return home – and I don’t think that the numbers are as many as are reported, after all the reports only talk about those leaving, not the many more who are choosing to stay and wait this out – they may decide that it is too difficult to return to Thailand when this is over. The only silver lining is that migrants tend to be socially isolated from the rest of society anyway, so that has meant that here in the north at least there have been no illnesses that we know of. The negative is a positive in this case.”