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Mixed fortunes abroad

Bangkok Post - 18 May 2015 - Many Thai workers create better futures for themselves when they go overseas, but others struggle and righting the wrongs is difficult.

When 30 Thai workers showed up at Suvarnabhumi Airport one evening last week, they were expecting to receive plane tickets for Australia where high-paying jobs picking grapes awaited them.

The smooth-talking man who recruited them was a no-show, as was the woman to whom the workers had transferred tens of thousands of baht each in advance fees. Now the police are trying to find the culprits and recover millions of baht.

The case is far from an isolated one, and illustrates just one of the many challenges facing people who seek to work abroad in hopes of securing a better life.

While Thailand has become home to millions of inbound workers in recent years, more than 500,000 Thais have gone abroad for employment. Many prosper but others face poor or dangerous working conditions, inadequate pay and other hardships.

Despite the considerable efforts made to protect the rights of Thai migrant workers, flaws in policies and complaint processes still leave thousands at risk of being exploited.

"A lot of times, workers find themselves in a position where complaint procedures are long and complicated so they become reluctant to submit their case and agree to anything they are offered," said Max Tuñón, senior programme officer and coordinator of the GMS Triangle project with the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The GMS Triangle was set up to protect migrant workers within and from the Greater Mekong Subregion from labour exploitation.

Many employers and recruitment agencies thus operate with impunity given the lack of proper access to complaint mechanisms, said Mr Tuñón.

Although the Labour Ministry offers channels to submit complaints, workers still find it very inconvenient, especially when they have already arrived in their destination country, said Prof Supang Chantavanich, director of the Asian Research Center for Migration (ARCM) at Chulalongkorn University.

"They don't have any money so they can't fly back to Thailand. … Accepting the conditions they were offered is usually their only option," she told Asia Focus.

The well-being of Thai outbound workers can also depend on the availability and proximity of Labour Ministry staff abroad, even for those that were recruited by a government agency, according to Dr Supang.

"If they work far away from a Thai embassy, it usually takes a long time for their needs to be addressed," she said. "More Thai organisations — both governments and NGOs — should be present abroad in order to help coordinate and facilitate the complaint process."

Although there are some trade unions and non-government organisations (NGOs) available to support workers' rights, Mr Tuñón believes community support is the best way to promote safe conditions and a fair quality of life for Thai workers.

"Governments or NGOs will not be able to help in every single case," he said. "Workers need to build their own peer-support network within the community in order [for good conditions] to become sustainable."

A good example of such a network is in Hong Kong, where a strong Thai labour union community established over the past decade has ensured that cases of abuse of Thai domestic workers are rare.

"In Hong Kong, physical abuse cases usually occur to Indonesian and Philippine workers who make up the majority of the domestic workers," said Bungon Tamasorn, chairperson of the Thai Regional Alliance (TRA) in Hong Kong.

Of the 300,000 domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, an estimated 150,000 are from Indonesia, 120,000 from the Philippines and only about 2,600 are from Thailand.

Ms Bungon said that in her view, the Labour Ministry had done quite a decent job in promoting the rights of Thai workers in Hong Kong, helped by the fact that access to help is easy.

"Transport in Hong Kong is very convenient and the territory is very small, unlike other countries such as Korea, where workers may find it more difficult to submit their complaints," she said.

In cases where workers find it difficult to visit or call government representatives abroad, their families in Thailand sometimes file complaints on their behalf, said Preecha Intrachatorn of the Thailand Overseas Employment Administration (TOEA).

"For those who have completed the registration process with the TOEA, the government always provides full support and we have representatives in different countries ready to give them assistance," he said.

Those who register with the TOEA are encouraged to become members of a mutual fund supports for overseas labour. Each member pays 300-500 baht per year and is eligible for health insurance and any additional costs.

The fund receives about 40-50 million baht every year, which barely covers its costs, so the TOEA may consider increasing membership fees in the future, he said.


Unlicensed labour recruiters have been a decades-long problem in Thailand. The case last week of the unfortunate would-be grape pickers was just one of many incidents.

Unscrupulous operators lure their victims with promises of good work, high pay and the opportunity to travel. Many claim to be connected to or acting on behalf of government agencies, lending an air of legitimacy to their operations. Workers are asked to pay the recruiters commission fees and in some cases they face further debits.

Often the jobs turn out to be not as good as claimed, or in some cases there are no jobs at all. In the worst cases, women lured by promises of restaurant or hotel work end up sold into the sex trade.

"We have government representatives that are ready to file complaints against these unlicensed recruiters and revoke their licence if necessary," said Mr Preecha.

Although the Department of Employment under the Labour Ministry has made a considerable effort in recent years to establish policies and promote legislation to protect the rights of outbound workers, loopholes and lack of enforcement remain an issue.

An ILO report released in 2013 suggested that Thai law has become outdated when it comes to effectively regulating private employment agencies.

Under the Recruitment and Job Seekers Protection Act (1985), only licensed agencies are allowed to offer employment services for outbound Thai workers. However, the provisions of the Act are still limited and inadequate enforcement has led to frequent violations.

Even when evidence of malpractice and human rights violations is strong, the penalties are not. Most violators face temporary licence suspensions and only six private agencies had their licences revoked between 2004 and 2010, according to the ILO report.

Now a new trend is emerging of agencies luring workers to emerging markets close to Thailand, according to Mr Preecha.

"Interestingly, these unlicensed recruiters use real facts and figures from our neighbouring countries such as Laos or Myanmar, informing Thai workers that these countries are undergoing such rapid development and they are in need of our workforce," he said.

The application and processing fees could exceed 100,000 baht in some cases, he added.


Another problem facing Thai outbound workers is the lack of support and sustainable career opportunities once they complete their contracts abroad. Many have acquired knowledge and skills that end up going to waste once they are back in Thailand.

Korn Chatikavanij, a senior Democrat Party member and former finance minister, shared his experience with Asia Focus about a visit he made to kibbutz farms in Israel two years ago.

"These farmers have opportunities to learn about Israeli agricultural innovations and they wish to bring the knowledge back to Thailand and further develop the Thai agricultural industry," he said.

The typical working contract, he said, was around six years but what frightened workers the most was the lack of job opportunities when they came back home.

"It's a shame not to be able to take this knowledge back to Thailand because we are also an agriculture-based country," he said.

"The Thai government has to initiate a policy that will take care of these migrant workers when their contracts end. Workers should have the opportunity to apply their knowledge and experience to agricultural work in Thailand."

Borvorn Sripaurya, a former vice-president of the Thai Overseas Manpower Association, added that many workers came home and turned to driving taxis or other jobs that had nothing to do with the knowledge and experience they had obtained.

"There has been no initiative from the government side whatsoever in trying to support these workers. … It's such a pity given that these workers have learned so much," he said.

Mr Preecha of the TOEA agreed, saying that Thai migrants learn a lot from working abroad in terms of techniques and discipline, and there should be more continuous support to further expand their knowledge.

"There should be a venue for [workers] to propose their ideas, promote continuity and sustainability that allows them to earn appropriate income for their families," he said.

He said he did not favour the idea of Thai people living and working abroad for the rest of their lives. He believes six years is long enough because if they stay abroad any longer it would become very difficult for them to come back.

"There has long been talk within [the TOEA] about having continuous 'aftermath' programmes to help these migrant workers, but the budget is still our major problem," he said.

He said the TOEA would submit a proposal to the military government to help promote employment opportunities and loans for projects that are considered viable.

Mr Preecha said authorities must accept the fact that there will always be low-skilled Thai workers willing to go abroad, and that the number tends to rise when times at home are tough.

"Due to the sluggish economy and low commodity prices, Thai people, especially in the North and northeastern provinces, have fled to other countries hoping to receive better career opportunities and higher wages," he said.

"In Taiwan, Korea and Japan, most people go for industrial and construction work, while in Middle East countries such as Israel, they go for agricultural work. In Europe, people go for the fruit-picking seasons between June and September."

According to statistics from the Labour Ministry, industrial employment represented about 53% of overseas workers in 2010, followed by handicrafts (24%), services (6%), construction and agriculture (5%).

This selection of news and comment is provided as a service to Network users, and is not intended to be comprehensive. The articles featured are compiled by external agencies and in no way reflect the views of the ILO, its constituents or partners. Their inclusion does not imply the endorsement or approval by the ILO of the information contained therein.


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