Migrant workers struggling under lockdown in Thailand

Across Thailand, millions of migrant workers are struggling due to the lockdown, unable to get home, and often without any work. The government has made exemptions to help their situations and established several support mechanisms. But access is often challenging for a range of reasons.

The most widespread impact of the lockdown on migrant workers in Thailand is job losses, according to respondents in a study by the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN). Many of those still employed say their working hours and wages have been reduced. This leaves them unable to afford rent, food, and daily household items. Many were not able to send remittances. They also expressed concern about visas and work permits that may have expired during the pandemic.

The industry hardest hit by the COVID-19 lockdown has been garments and textiles, according to MWRN. This particularly hit more women than men as they are overrepresented in this sector. The sectors of construction and real estate development, as well as metal and plastic manufacture, suffered the next-worst impacts, respectively. The fishery and seafood-processing industry have not been significantly affected, the report found.


Government assistance for migrant workers

Thailand is an important destination country for migrant workers in the region. When the state of emergency was declared on 25 March to control the COVID-19 pandemic, around 2.8 million migrant workers were registered in Thailand according to the Ministry of Labour, most of them from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In the days following 25 March, only about 60,000 left the country, according to the Immigration Bureau.

On 21 April, a cabinet resolution gave migrant workers permission to stay in Thailand until the state of emergency is lifted or the borders are reopened. But even if their status is resolved, those trapped in the kingdom face increasing economic hardship and health risks, as those working in the informal sector are not qualified for the unemployment benefits under the social security system.

The Ministry of Labour has taken several measures to reduce the risks of COVID-19 infections among migrant workers, including: suspending the approval of new memoranda of understanding on employment with neighbouring countries; screening fishery workers; distributing household items to migrant-worker communities to reduce contact with locals; and relaxing regulations to allow migrant workers to extend work and residency permits.

There are also several social security mechanisms available to any documented migrant worker in Thailand, and around 1.2 million are registered with those systems. These registered workers are eligible for healthcare, compensation and unemployment benefits, according to the Social Security Office (SSO). The government has also reduced or delayed some of the contributions to the social security funds that are required of employers and workers. In principle, all migrants can access medical treatment for COVID-19 regardless of their immigration status.

There are two health insurance systems for documented migrants and their dependents: the Social Security Fund under the management of the SSO and the Foreign Workers Fund under the Ministry of Public Health. But many migrants have faced obstacles. Access to the SSO-managed services has been limited by delays in registration and poor understanding among employers. Moreover, migrants’ use of the services under the Ministry of Public Health has been hampered by language barriers, residential status, and their own lack of understanding of the benefits.Both of these health insurance systems potentially cover the medical expense of COVID-19 treatments.


Challenges for migrant workers persist

According to MWRN, many businesses in Thailand appear to be taking advantage of the pandemic and failing to ensure worker’s labour rights as per the standards laid out in Thai law. With limited oversight, some businesses have allegedly forced employees to sign resignation letters to avoid compensation for ending contracts.

Furthermore, most official announcements are in Thai. This leaves the many migrant workers who do not understand the language well unable to claim their labour rights, health care and employment benefits. There seems to be a lack of cooperation between government agencies, notably the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Public Health, the Ministry of Labour, claims MWRN. Policies and frameworks are introduced in an ad-hoc manner and their implementation is inconsistent across agencies.

Migrant workers are also stigmatized by xenophobic elements among officials, law enforcement, health professionals and the media. This leads to discrimination and prevents prompt access to healthcare services.

Even when the system works, there are bureaucratic delays. Labour complaints can take up to 60 days to process. Many workers simply cannot afford to support themselves this long to wait for the investigation and findings to be complete. And the system does not work at all for those in informal sectors, such as agricultural, domestic, seasonal and sex work, who are excluded from the compensation and economic relief packages. They face an increased risk of exploitation, including human trafficking, as their options for meeting their basic needs are drastically reduced.

Migrants who are detained for any reason are not only unable to access any of the support mechanisms, but also face dramatically increased risks of contagion from the cramped and unhygienic conditions, despite the recommendations on social distancing by health authorities. And if they do fall ill, they are very unlikely to receive adequate health care in detention.

The challenges migrant workers in Thailand are facing carry indeed many faces and need to be addressed comprehensively and systematically. Time is of the essence to avoid an economic and social crisis post-COVID-19 that’s even bigger than the current crisis.


Naruemon Thubchumpon is an Assistance Professor of the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University and Director of the Asian Research Center for Migration, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

This article is based on the report "Thailand Situation Update in COVID-19 Emergency Response – April 2020", by Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN).

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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