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Thailand Migrant Talks Stall

08 January 2013 - Myanmar Times. Negotiations with Thailand over a new framework for migrant worker registration have so far failed to produce any results, an official in the Department of Labour confirmed last week.

Negotiations with Thailand over a new framework for migrant worker registration have so far failed to produce any results, an official in the Department of Labour confirmed last week.

Under the framework established in 2010 that ended on December 14, 2012, undocumented workers could apply for passports and work permits at six processing centres across Thailand.

While the process usually involved brokers and other agents and was described by the Migrant Worker’s Rights Network as “extortionate in practice”, the government supported the scheme, believing it was a better alternative than having its citizens toil abroad as undocumented, illegal workers.

“The Myanmar government wants every worker regulated,” said Andy Hall, an expert on migrant workers at Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research in Bangkok and a regular adviser to Nay Pyi Taw. “The regulation reduces the risk of exploitation.”

More than one million workers from Myanmar are believed to have used the program but on December 14 the Thai government ordered that all registration centres close, warning that any remaining undocumented workers return to their home countries or face jail or deportation. So far there have been no reports of crackdowns or mass arrests, but the decision to close the centres has been perceived as a clear threat to the livelihoods of both Myanmar workers and their families back home, who often rely on their remittances to survive.

Department of Labour director general U Myo Aung told The Myanmar Times that representatives from his office travelled to Bangkok on twelve separate occasions since November 26 to discuss extending the deadline or coming up with a new registration plan but Thailand refused to budge.

“They want the centres [for documentation] to close. This [Myanmar] side would like them to stay open,” he said on January 5

Though it was widely reported in both Myanmar and Thailand that Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and President U Thein Sein had reached an agreement to extend the December 14 deadline by three months during a recent visit to Dawei, the Thai government has since stated that only a discussion occurred and no formal agreements have been reached.

Several proposals, such as granting two-month visas to seasonal workers, have been discussed, but U Myo Aung said that none of these were close to being implemented.

Representatives from Thailand’s Department of Employment declined to comment on the status of the negotiations, saying only that it was an “ongoing situation.”

As a result, the more than one million undocumented migrant workers still in Thailand – the vast majority of whom come from Myanmar – have no means of legalising their stay, a situation that activists familiar with the situation say could lead to increased exploitation of this already vulnerable community.

“The more confusion there is about the law, the more likely it is that migrants will have to pay more corruption fees,” said Andy Hall.

These fees include paying protection money to immigration police in Thailand, which can put migrants into crippling debt.

Even more troubling, according to Mr Hall and Jackie Pollack of the Mae Sot-based MAP Foundation, which works for migrants’ rights in Thailand, is that many workers remain completely unaware of the changes in the law and continue to pay upwards of US$500 to local brokers for registration documents. “The brokers tell people they can get documents, but the papers they end up with are [fake],” Mr Hall said.

U Myo Aung said his office’s next meeting with its counterparts in Thailand was scheduled for the first week of February. However, he did not offer much grounds for optimism, saying only: “There might be favourable or unfavourable results forthcoming from the meeting.”


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