Cablegate: Government Responds to Criticisms of Migrant Worker

Published: Thu 5 Nov 2009 03:03 AM
DE RUEHBK #2821/01 3090303
P 050303Z NOV 09
Department for EAP/MLS DSmith, DRL/IL MJunk, GTIP CChan-Downer, and
DOL/ILAB for Brandie Sasser
E.O. 12958: N/A
BANGKOK 00002821 001.2 OF 004
Sensitive But Unclassified. For Official Use Only.
Ref: Bangkok 1376 (Thai Government Plans Migrant Amnesty)
1. (SBU) Summary: In July of this year, the Thai government began
implementing an amnesty program for illegal migrant workers in
Thailand. Employed migrants from Laos, Cambodia, and Burma may
apply for temporary work permits and must have their nationality
verified by their government. Those who fail to regularize their
status through participation in the program will be subject to
deportation. Observers in civil society and some of Bangkok's
resident UN agencies acknowledge the program as a positive step
taken by the Royal Thai Government (RTG) to protect migrants by
bringing them into the formal labor market, with related benefits
such as access to health insurance. Nonetheless, the Thai
government's implementation of the program has been met by
criticism: poor communication to migrant communities,
under-regulation of private companies involved, high fees, and
unrealistic deadlines, among others. The RTG has modified aspects
of the program to benefit migrants in response to media and NGO
criticism, but problems remain. Ultimately, even the critics agree
the Burmese government, by its refusal to allow nationality
verification within Thailand, is to blame for a system that could
lead to the exploitation of migrants. Nonetheless, there are at
this point no known cases of severe exploitation (including human
trafficking) of participating migrants. End Summary.
2. (SBU) Comment: This migrant worker amnesty/registration program
represents the RTG's latest effort to deal with an illegal
immigration problem largely inevitable given that Thailand's
generally open economy and society is surrounded by much poorer and
more repressive neighboring countries. We will continue to stay in
close contact with government officials to encourage continued
flexibility in the implementation of its plans and guard against the
possibility that poor implementation could lead to exploitation of
migrant workers. End comment.
3. (SBU) In July 2009, the RTG began implementing a massive worker
registration/amnesty program. Originally scrapped over concerns
about protecting jobs for Thai workers during the global economic
crisis, the amnesty went forward after surveys showed there were
many jobs Thai workers still were not willing to fill. This latest
effort to regularize its migrant work force is proceeding in
accordance with Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with the
governments of Cambodia, Laos, and Burma. The amnesty covers
irregular workers from those three countries employed in specific
sectors of the economy (e.g., those who entered Thailand illegally
and who may or may not have work permits depending on whether they
participated in the last amnesty in 2004 and have since renewed
their work permit). Speaking of the initiative on October 5, Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva noted, "We realize that the most
effective way to protect these migrants is to legalize their status
and bring them into the formal labor market," according to the
4. (SBU) Despite this latest attempt to effectively and humanely
deal with its complex, illegal immigration problem, the Thai
government's implementation of the amnesty program continues to draw
criticism. (Note: reftel provides background on the history of
Thailand's migrant worker amnesty programs and an explanation of the
rationale behind this latest round. End note.). Concerns within
the migrant labor community (including a fear of deportation,
exploitation, or both) had led to a proliferation of rumors and
unofficial information about the nature of the registration program.
Through a series of formal meetings and informal conversations with
Thai government officials, Post has sought to clarify details of the
amnesty program and has advocated for continued improvement in its
implementation. Post has also been in close, continual contact with
interested non-governmental organizations and UN agency
representatives in Bangkok.
The Complex Process Explained
5. (U) The amnesty program entails a multi-step process, including
verification by foreign governments of the nationality of
participating migrant workers. As detailed in reftel, employers
must first register their illegal workers with the Thai Ministry of
Interior (for a fee of 80 baht per person or approximately USD
2.40). Workers must then receive a health check (600 baht) and
purchase mandatory health insurance (1,300 baht) through the
Ministry of Health so that they may have access to the
government-sponsored healthcare system.
6. (SBU) The Ministry of Labor then issues workers, for a fee, a
work permit that affords them the right to temporarily stay and work
in Thailand (permits are available for periods of three months, six
BANGKOK 00002821 002.2 OF 004
months, one year, or two years for fees on a sliding scale: 450 baht
for three months, 900 baht for six months, 1,800 baht for one year,
and 3,600 baht for two years). The permit does not afford permanent
residence rights; registered workers are subject to deportation when
their permit expires. The Thai government's intent, as per the MOUs
with its neighbors, is for all future migrant workers to enter
Thailand through a formal labor importation process. (Note:
According to a 2009 report by the International Organization for
Migration (IOM), in 2008 1.8 million migrants were working in
Thailand, of whom only half a million held work permits. Of the
total 535,732 registered in 2007, 91 percent were from Burma. End
7. (SBU) Nationality verification is required for all workers from
Laos, Cambodia, and Burma who have not yet had their citizenship
confirmed by their government, even if the worker already possesses
a work permit. At present the deadline for completing this step is
February 28, 2010, after which, should the plan hold, non-Thai
migrant workers in Thailand would be either regularized or subject
to deportation. Citizens of Laos and Cambodia have generally
completed this step through processing centers (static and mobile)
set up by their governments throughout Thailand with budget support
from the Thai government. Those from Burma must complete this step
through one of three centers established along the Thai-Burmese
border at: Ranong (Thailand) - Koh Song (Burma), Mae Sot (Thailand)
- Myawadi (Burma), and Mae Sai (Thailand) - Ta Kee Lek (Burma).
Establishing the Burmese centers just over the border in Burma was a
compromise after years of negotiations between the Thai and Burmese
governments. (Thailand wanted Burma to agree to an in-Thailand
system such as Laos and Cambodia agreed to. Burma wanted migrants
to travel back to their home areas within Burma.) Prior to
traveling to one of the centers, Burmese migrants provide
applications with biographic data to the Thai government which then
forwards the information to the government of Burma. Once the GOB
verifies the information, it informs the Thai government, which then
informs employers who often arrange for the transport of their
workers to one of the centers.
8. (SBU) The Thai Labor Ministry then makes an appointment for the
migrant at the border processing centers and provides the migrant
with papers authorizing him/her to travel to the border (migrant
workers are not generally allowed to travel outside their province
of employment without authorization). On the day of the
appointment, the worker receives a "delivery letter" at the Thai
border center and reports to Burmese authorities at the accompanying
Burmese center. Burmese authorities then verify the nationality of
the migrant and provide them with a temporary passport (costing
3,000 Burmese kyat, equivalent to USD 3). With passport in hand, the
worker crosses back into Thailand and purchases a visa (500 baht/USD
15) as well as an additional work permit to cover any time not
already covered by their existing permit.
Mounting Concerns
9. (SBU) The registration process, and especially the accompanying
nationality verification process for Burmese migrants, has drawn
criticism from civil society organizations. On September 16, a
group of three organizations sent a joint letter of concern to the
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
(Note: Laboff passed it on September 18 to counterparts in the
Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Labor, and Social Development
(MSDHS). End Note). The same organizations, which includes the
State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation (Thailand's largest
public laborer organization), sent a complaint letter (with
recommendations) to Prime Minister Abhisit on October 5. In an
October 30 meeting with LabOff, a grass-roots migrant labor activist
who played a major role in developing the letter summarized his
major concerns and recommendations as follows:
- Information: the Thai government has done a poor job of providing
information on the amnesty program directly to migrant workers,
relying instead on employers and provincial government officials to
relay the information to them. In the absence of authoritative
information regarding the process and its associated fees, migrants
are more prone to over-charging and potentially other forms of
exploitation. The Thai government should provide improved
information to migrants more widely, especially in the Burmese
- Brokers/facilitators: the requirement that Burmese migrants must
travel to the Thai-Burma border encourages the use of private firms
by employers and migrants to assist them in completing the
nationality verification process. The firms are under-regulated,
thereby putting migrants at risk of exploitation via over-charging
or, at worst, human trafficking. Private firms involved in the
process should be better regulated.
BANGKOK 00002821 003.2 OF 004
- Fees: migrant workers generally earn, at best, minimum wage (which
varies by province but ranges from approximately 148 to 203 baht per
day). As such, fees associated with the amnesty process are a
burden on migrants who will likely be held responsible for the full
cost of their processing. This is especially true if migrants are
held responsible for the costs of labor brokers, which reportedly
charge between 4,000 to 10,000 baht for services (e.g., round-trip
transportation to the border centers, assistance with filling out
forms, etc.). Fees should therefore be lowered and capped.
- Deadline and Deportation: While approximately one million migrants
have registered with the Ministry of Interior and approximately
850,000 have applied for renewed or new work permits, only a few
thousand Burmese migrants have successfully completed the
nationality verification process. With the February 2010 deadline
fast approaching, it is clear that it only a relative handful of
migrants will be able to complete the nationality verification
process before it arrives. As such, the deadline should be extended
and migrants who have begun the process should not be subject to
10. (SBU) The expressions of concern by civil society organizations
have led others to take notice. Local press has run articles and
opinion pieces critical of nationality verification in recent weeks.
In addition, representatives of the United Nations anti-human
trafficking project (UNIAP) and International Organization for
Migration (IOM) told econoff on October 29 that the United Nations
will be looking at the issue. They confirmed that the UN Thematic
Working Group on International Migration will undertake research on
the nationality verification process with the goal of providing
recommendations to the Thai government on how to improve it.
Thai Response to Realities and Criticism
11. (SBU) Acknowledging the slow pace of progress of the illegal
worker amnesty, and in light of the concerns expressed about it,
Thai authorities have been taking steps to modify the program. A
MOL Department of Employment (DOE) representative confirmed to us
October 6 that the DOE had forwarded a proposal to the Thai cabinet
to extend the deadline for work permit applications to allow
migrants more time to apply (the previous deadline passed on August
29). DOE also recommended that the children of migrant workers be
allowed to register as dependents of workers (spouses need to apply
separately for work permits). In a meeting on October 27, DOE
Director General Jirasuk Sugandhajati explained to Embassy officers
that the cabinet had not yet taken up the recommendations for
decision but hopefully would soon do so. In response to our
statement of concern over the Burmese nationality verification and
its February 28 deadline in particular, the Director General noted
Thai authorities were considering an extension and would determine
whether to do so as the deadline grows nearer. (NOTE: we spoke
again of this matter on November 3 to a DOE official who explained
that in order to estimate how many Burmese migrants intend to
complete their nationality verification, the MOL has asked migrants
to submit by November 20 a form documenting their intent. It is
unclear whether migrants that do not do so will be allowed to
complete the process. End Note).
12. (SBU) In the same meeting, the Director General also responded
to our questions on the use of private firms to facilitate the
nationality verification of Burmese and the fees associated with the
amnesty process in general. While not required, employers (and
migrants) can use the services of private firms, he explained.
While the Thai government has not as a matter of policy recommended
any firm over another, it has communicated to the Government of
Burma (and provincial level MOL offices) the bona fides of at least
three firms after the Burmese government inquired about them. With
regard to fees, the Thai government has not sought to cap the fees
such companies charge but instead explained that market competition
will help control costs since employers and workers will naturally
contract with those companies providing the best services for the
lowest fees (a DOE employee also noted there are no legal grounds
for the government to set prices for private services in this area).
However, the DG explained that, recognizing the difficulty migrants
may have in covering fees, the Labor Minister issued a regulation
lowering the visa fee for Burmese going through the nationality
verification process from 2,000 to 500 baht (the regulation went
into force on October 27). Stating that employers (and not just
proponents of workers) have raised complaints with him, DG Jirasuk
noted cases in which employers have put out money for laborers to
register only to have the laborers quit soon after.
13. (SBU) In response to our statement of concern that Burmese
migrants do not appear to have full and authoritative information on
the nationality registration process, the DG noted that, upon his
BANGKOK 00002821 004.2 OF 004
recommendation after observing the process at the Mae Sot center,
the Ministry would soon distribute to employers and provincial DOE
offices a manual on the process with improved information on the
steps it entails, the forms and other documents it requires, and the
government fees. Showing us a copy of the draft manual, he noted it
will be available in Thai, Burmese, and English.
Improvements to Program Not Likely Enough
14. (SBU) Observers have noted the positive steps taken by the Thai
authorities to modify the registration/nationality verification
process to benefit migrant workers. When queried by Laboff October
29 and 30, both IOM and civil society representatives acknowledged
that the amnesty program ultimately should improve the rights of all
workers in Thailand. They pointed to the lowering of fees,
inclusion of child dependents, and extension of the deadline for
work permits as positive moves for which the Thai government should
be credited. One activist noted another example of Thai authorities
acting responsively to civil society concerns: the apparent policy
reversal by the Ministry of Transportation (made public October 30)
to change existing policy and allow migrant workers to both register
ownership of motorcycles and apply for drivers licenses. He also
noted that Ministry of Labor offices at the provincial level have
organized buses to assist the transport of migrants to border areas.
As such, even some Burmese ethnic minorities have completed the
full amnesty process and are now enjoying the benefits of having
done so (e.g., the ability to travel more freely, access to health
care, etc.). Importantly, when asked whether they are aware of any
confirmed cases of severe exploitation (such as human trafficking)
among the migrants who are participating or have participated in the
amnesty program, no one with whom we spoke was aware of any.
15. (SBU) Nonetheless, observers, and especially migrant labor
advocates, remain concerned. They point out that uncertainty within
the migrant labor community - and particularly among Burmese ethnic
minorities - is high, and that lack of clarity will likely keep many
from completing the nationality verification process. One contact
characterized the Thai government's implementation of the amnesty
program to date as "miserable" and that there remain enormous
practical obstacles to successful completion of the program. He
also noted with exasperation the apparent announcement of the
November 20 filing deadline for the nationality verification intent
form as proof that Thai authorities continue to make key decisions
on the amnesty program without fully considering how they will be
communicated to migrant workers and what impact the decisions will
have on the workers' well-being.
Burma: The Heart of the Problem
16. (SBU) Perhaps the one point on which all with whom we have
spoken are in full agreement is that the Government of Burma is to
blame for the particular difficulties imposed on Burmese migrants in
the migrant worker registration process. As our contacts explain
it, the GOB's reported insistence on not allowing for the
verification of its national's citizenship on Thai soil -- as is
done for Laotians and Cambodians - required the development of a
complex system that potentially creates opportunities for
exploitation. As one civil society representative put it, "most all
of the problems flow from there. Were Burmese centers opened within
Thailand, everything else would fall into place." Unfortunately,
all with whom we spoke are equally skeptical that the Burmese
government would agree to change the system. As such, civil society
organizations are targeting their criticism and recommendations at
the Thai government as the only way to ease the burden on migrant
workers and make them less vulnerable to exploitation.
17. (SBU) This cable was coordinated with Embassy Rangoon and
Consulate Chiang Mai.
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