Migrant workers in Thailand in line for a raise -- if they can prove they're legal

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Sai Tun Kyai moved to Thailand two years ago. (Photo by Bruce Wallace.)

For Thailand’s estimated 2.5 million migrant workers, 2013 brings new bureaucratic hurdles, but a promise of a higher minimum wage as well.

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On Jan. 1, the country’s minimum wage was raised to 300 baht — or about $10 per day.

Migrant workers from neighboring countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos make up as much as 10 percent of Thailand’s workforce. They should be eligible for the pay bump, if they can prove they’re in the country legally. For workers like those in a worker camp in the San Kham Pang district 30 minutes east of downtown Chiang Mai, however, that just got a little harder.

About 300 people live here, almost all of them from Myanmar’s Shan State, a five-hour drive north. The camp is set in a field between two blocks of new townhouses. The people in the camp are building the townhouses.

Sai Tun Kyai lives at the end of a row of huts. He moved here from Shan State about two years ago.

He got a work permit soon after he arrived — Thailand has offered these to undocumented migrants on and off since the early 90s. Through an interpreter, he says his employer dropped the ball, his permit expired, and he missed the Dec. 14 deadline for Nationality Verification.

“Right now I’m really confused,” he said. “Because my work permit’s expired, I’m basically illegal. If the police find me, will they arrest me? Will they send me back to the border? I don’t know what to do.”

He’s not alone.

There are some 2.5 million migrant workers in Thailand. About three quarters are from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Most are manual laborers — doing construction and agriculture around Chiang Mai,  and fishing and factories elsewhere.

Less than half of them met the deadline that would make them eligible for the new minimum wage, national health benefits and grant access to schools. For the 1.5 million workers who didn’t meet the deadline, there’s confusion.

It’s been reported that the government will extend the deadline, but at the same time the Thai government has threatened crackdowns and deportations.

18-year-old Nong Foung lives near Sai Tun Kyai. She pours concrete at a construction site seven-days-a-week. Since her work permit expired earlier this year, she hustles between home and the site, she’s afraid to go anywhere else.

A couple months ago, immigration officials arrested seven people at her worksite. She laughs a bit when she talks about escaping into nearby woods to avoid being picked up.

Andy Hall, a migration researcher and worker advocate at Mahidol University in Bangkok, says giving migrants a way to work legally is good.

“The process in itself in theory is a good process — to legalize the workers. It’s an original process which we haven’t seen anywhere else in the world,” he said.

In practice, though, Hall says corruption reigns — government agents demand kickbacks and funnel applicants to private, unregulated brokers. He says a process that should cost $30 can end up costing closer to $500 — three months wages for a typical worker.

The Thai Labor Ministry didn’t respond to questions about these points.

Thai business groups, the Myanmar government and international workers' groups have pressed for a deadline extension. The promised crackdown hasn’t materialized yet. In the past, Hall says, similar crackdowns have opened up an extortion bonanza.

“Every country has a right to define its borders. Every country has the right to (detain) people in humane conditions and deport them back to their country of origin if they enter the country illegally. I don’t think most people have a problem with that. But what we have a problem with is using this context to extort and undermine the rule of law,” he said.

Thailand’s policy is evolving as the whole region prepares for 2015’s economic integration under ASEAN — a European Union-style collaboration between 10 southeast Asian countries. Integration will make moving between countries easier for some workers, although mostly in highly-skilled jobs.

Jackie Pollock, who directs Chiang Mai’s Migrant Assistance Program, does see it having a less tangible benefit for the low-skilled workers her group helps.

“There is more of a sense growing of being part of a region,” she said. “Now, in the schools, they’re teaching about ASEAN and they’re teaching ASEAN languages in the schools, which was unheard of 10 years ago. So I think children now will grow up more of a sense of being ASEANite, and that can hopefully only be a good thing.”

For the moment, though, many are just focused on cementing their identity as legal, migrant workers.

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