Migrant workers left out in Thailand's fight against COVID-19

Migrant workers left out in Thailand's fight against COVID-19

A Myanmar labourer works at a fishing port in southern Thailand
A Myanmar migrant works at a fishing port in southern Thailand. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

BANGKOK: May Oo Sen is among millions of people in Thailand who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2009, she moved from Myanmar’s Kayin state for a job in Bangkok, where she works as a maid with a cleaning company. Every month, the firm deducts 80 per cent from her wage paid by clients, leaving her just enough to buy food, pay rent and send money to her grandparents back home.

But since the health crisis emerged, half of May Oo Sen’s clients have terminated the contracts. 

Some of the clients have young children and are concerned about possible transmission of the potentially deadly disease, which has killed dozens of people and infected thousands in Thailand. 

Others could no longer pay her because their companies had closed down.

But with continued monthly expenses, the increasing financial burdens have begun to weigh on her.

“My income has gone down by half but I still have to pay rent and contribute to the Social Security Fund every month,” said the 29-year-old. “This isn’t just happening to me but also to everyone at work.”

Many migrant workers like her face an uncertain future as the pandemic continues to spread and jeopardise businesses across Thailand. Although May Oo Sen still has some clients left, she has no idea how long that would last or what to do if she becomes unemployed.

Myanmar migrant workers abroad a fishing boat in southern Thailand
Myanmar migrant workers stay abroad a fishing boat in southern Thailand. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

According to the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, the COVID-19 crisis has put millions of migrants out of work in recent weeks. In Thailand, one of the main challenges they face is a lack of inclusiveness in government measures to alleviate the impact of the health emergency on the residents.  

“We are concerned that in a situation where many thousands of migrants have lost their livelihoods, migrants are not included in the stimulus and compensation packages that have been announced by the government, which could lead many into situations of extreme precarity,” said Pia Oberoi, senior advisor on migration and human rights at the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia.

READ: Thailand job losses may hit 10 million if COVID-19 outbreak drags on

UNEMPLOYMENT A MAJOR PROBLEM FOR MIGRANT WORKERS

The Thai government has offered a six-month financial support package worth 30,000 Baht (US$920) to Thai citizens who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the scheme does not include migrant workers, who form an integral part of Thai society.

As of December last year, data from the Employment Department showed there were more than 3 million of them in Thailand. The majority – about 2.7 million people – came from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Workers repair a fishing net at a port in southern Thailand
Workers repair a fishing net at a port in southern Thailand. A number of Myanmar migrant workers work in the Thai fishing industry. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

There is no official record of how many migrants in Thailand have lost their jobs to the health crisis. However, migrants’ rights groups believe a significant number of them have suffered the blow of the government’s order to temporarily close several businesses in order to minimise the transmission. 

These include business venues where a number of them were employed, such as department stores, eateries and massage locations.

“The biggest problem for migrant workers right now is unemployment,” said Adisorn Kerdmongkol from Migrant Working Group – a coalition of local NGOs advocating labour rights and welfare.

Unemployment is likely to increase as the service and commercial sectors remain closed.

According to Adisorn, unemployed migrant workers risk losing their legal status in Thailand if they cannot find a new employer and renew their work permit in time. And without income, he said, migrants cannot survive and will try to return home.

However, Thailand has closed its border checkpoints to control the outbreak. “So, these people find themselves in a situation where they can’t really stay on in Thailand or return home,” Adisorn said.

Instead, he added, migrants are likely to move around Thailand in search for jobs in order to maintain their legal status and those who cannot may end up trying to cross the border illegally in order to go home.

“This won’t benefit Thailand or the country of destination because if the migrants are infected, they could further spread the disease,” Adisorn said. 

“Recently, a number of people have already crossed the border back home. The number is between 100,000 and 200,000.”

READ: In Thailand, the COVID-19 outbreak is driving more consumers online

"GOVERNMENT DIDN'T LOOK AT THE PROBLEM FROM EVERY PERSPECTIVE"

While temporary closure of infection-prone venues is largely seen as a necessary step to control the COVID-19 outbreak, migrants’ rights activists believe the government’s order was imposed without a long-term plan to comprehensively address its consequences for the residents.

“The government didn’t look at the problem from every perspective. People who have been hardest hit are day labourers – both Thais and migrants. However, Thai people get support, for example, the monthly 5,000-Baht compensation scheme,” Adisorn said, calling the order "a serious misstep".

“The government is handling the problem with urgency but it didn’t consider if everyone is included or look at the situation in the long term. This is non-existent. There are measures but when you look at the details, they’re vague,” he added. 

They only think of people with direct impact from the closure, not other business operators related to those venues.

Still, the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia has commended the Thai government for positive measures introduced to assist migrants in the country, from ensuring free COVID-19 testing to at-risk migrants and free medical care in public hospitals regardless of status, to the passing of a recent Cabinet resolution.

In March, the Cabinet passed a decision to enable migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who could not renew their work permit in time to continue working legally in Thailand until Jun 30 without being fined for overstaying their visa.

READ: Singapore is paying 'close attention' to welfare of foreign workers amid COVID-19 outbreak, says PM Lee

However, Oberoi of the UN Human Rights Office mentioned concern over migrants detained in “often crowded” Immigration Detention Centres, where she said the risk of transmission is “very high”.

“We call urgently for their release into community-based and non-custodial alternatives to detention. This is particularly urgent in the case of children and their families, persons with disabilities and older persons,” she added.

Myanmar workers
A number of migrant workers have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis in Thailand, where some 2.7 million of them came from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

With the COVID-19 crisis likely to drag on, migrants’ rights groups are calling for more relief measures for millions of foreign workers in Thailand. According to Adisorn, keeping them in the employment system is necessary as it will help minimise their movement and limit the risk of transmission.

“As soon as they start moving around unregistered, we won’t be able to trace them,” he said.

When migrant workers become jobless, they’re likely to cross the border illegally. This won’t benefit Thailand or the country of destination because if they’re infected, they could further spread the disease.

For Adisorn, government measures still largely focus on Thai citizens despite millions of migrant workers in the country. 

However, the nation is battling a serious outbreak that has killed dozens of people and infected thousands. If the government fails to ensure inclusiveness in its disease control and preventive operations, the rights activist is worried the consequences could be devastating.

“When a crisis occurs, some Thais don’t think migrants are part of society or that they too feel the impact,” Adisorn noted.

“When the crisis is a serious pandemic and that perspective persists, it immediately generates a negative effect – a situation where people move around and increase the risk of spreading the disease."

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Source: CNA/pp(aw)

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