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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 10, 2010, 12:27 pm

In Thailand, Migrant Workers Struggle With New Verification Policy

BY Akito Yoshikane

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A migrant worker from Burma takes a break while sorting jellyfish from the sea at Ban Nam Khem, a fishing village in Thailand, in December 2009.   (CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, migrant workers from Laos, Burma and Cambodia have traveled to neighboring Thailand for employment. Despite being undocumented, the workers were given temporary work permits by the government and received annual extensions to prolong their stay in order to fill Thailand's labor demands.

Now, Thai authorities are implementing a policy to formalize the legal status of about 2 million migrant workers. As part of the process, the foreign laborers must apply to verify their nationality. The move comes at a time when Thailand is attempting to reconcile what it views as a national security concern over the influx of undocumented workers with the need to satisfy a growing labor demand.

But so far the program has caused a flurry of skepticism and criticism for its complicated process, lack of transparency and high costs.

On the surface, the program has been touted as a path to legal work under the protection of national labor laws that were previously denied to them as undocumented workers. Under the plan, migrant workers receive a temporary passport for a two-year visa.

The migrant workers' permits were set to expire this month, but the Thai government recently extended their stay for two years over fears that the verification system could not process the paperwork in time. Still, the government says migrants must complete the national verification by Feb. 28 this month and could face deportation for failure to do so, which activists and human rights groups say could cause a mass repatriation.

The national verification is especially challenging for Burmese workers, who make up 90% of the migrant laborers. While Laos and Cambodian officials will come to Thailand to assist their citizens, Burma is insisting their workers return home to complete the process. Some of them are from ethnic minority groups who have had a tenuous history with the junta and are weary to take part in the national verification process. Not only will they have to return home, but they will also have to give detailed biographical information to the military government, leading some to fear that authorities will harass or extort their families back home for any remittances. Rights groups are also saying the Myanmar military may misuse the list of registered migrant workers for the general election later this year.

For migrants that need help to navigate the difficult 13-step application, a market has even opened up for businesses to take advantage of the processing. Private brokers are in an unregulated market charging migrants $226-450 dollars to process the verification, a sum far higher than the cheaper, but slower, government service.

The Thai government has also failed to properly inform migrant workers about the process, a sentiment echoed by Human Rights Watch:

Given the significant impacts of the NV process on the lives of these workers, we feel the RTG's policy both on allowing migrants to renew their work permits in 2010 or extending the February 28, 2010 NV deadline is unsatisfactorily vague.

There is currently no uniform practice in renewing work permits of migrants that expire on January 20, 2010 in the different provinces of Thailand. We observe that the RTG migration policy currently does not seem to be proceeding in accordance with the rule of law.

Several unions and rights groups are fearful this new bureaucratic process is just another way to exploit workers. Meanwhile, migrant workers are not only doing jobs that are deemed less desirable, but also contributing to the country's development. A report by the International Labour Organization found that migrant workers in Thailand contribute $53 million to the economy every year.

To Americans, the national verification policy may draw comparisons to the controversial E-Verify program in the U.S., which allows employers to check the legal status of employees. While the program in the U.S. is voluntary, the national verification in Thailand is mandatory. But both programs again expose the perils of a fragile immigration system.


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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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