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ASEAN Declaration Urges Better Migrant Worker Rights

August 05, 2007

Thailand is taking steps to reform migrant worker laws and regulations but still falls short and often fails to take into account the situation faced by refugees, especially from Burma.

That was o­ne of the messages from a seminar sponsored by the International Labor Office as part of follow-up talks to strengthen migrant workers' rights throughout South East Asia. The gathering was a follow-up to the Association of South East Asian Nations Declaration o­n the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers signed by the Asean nations in January.

The Asean document calls for improved migrant worker rights and welfare, as well as taking steps to combat human smuggling and trafficking. The Thailand Development Research Institute released a study this month that estimated Thailand will need up to 700,000 migrant workers in 2007.

Migrant employment should be free of discrimination and arbitrary regulations, and include provisions for incentives to “law abiding employers,” according to the study. Kovit Buraphatanin, the director of the International Affairs Division of the Labour Ministry, said there are sound economic reasons for reforms to be put in place.

“The government realizes that foreign workers create a mutual benefit for those who are coming to work here, and also the country, because it makes the economy go smoothly,” Kovit told The Irrawaddy.  Thailand is preparing new laws o­n “alien workers," he said, and with their passage many reforms could occur, including categorizing occupations that will be open to foreign workers as well as setting quotas.

“The management of the foreign worker would be more systematic,” he said. In media reports, academics at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute for Asian Studies have criticized existing migrant worker regulations as arbitrary and dependent o­n whoever is in power. The academics accused some officials of corruption in overseeing changes to favor certain authorities or political figures.

Prapan Vongsarochana, a senior official in the Thai Education Ministry, told the seminar that worker reforms have been taking place since 1992, including easing restrictions o­n migrant children to attend schools.  Since 2005, school entrance requirements and documentation required by migrant worker parents have been eased.

“If they have no IDs or house registration papers or documents whatsoever, the mother and father can come to the school and testify that these are their children,” she said. “Even if you are undocumented (migrant worker children) you have rights to education, regardless,” she said. However, children of "political" refugees do not have the same rights.

Often there are uncertainties o­n how long migrant children will remain in school.  “The parents are here to make the most money they can (before they leave)," she said. "The Burmese people are facing many problems back in their own country. Many are fleeing poverty and repression.” 

ILO labor analyst Manolo Abella, in a telephone interview, said the ILO was trying to persuade ASEAN countries to further open labor markets, with skill assessment studies o­ne of the first issues to be addressed.  There are both technical as well as political issues that need to be dealt with as different groups are affected by reforms, he said. Similar issues were faced by the European Union in the1960s, with the resolution of the question of qualifications taking several years.

“We are looking at these things," Abella said. "They will need to address these issues sooner than later.”  Opening the seminar, Bill Slater, the director of the ILO’s sub-regional Office for East Asia, said the labor migration issue had implications for “economic activity, human security and national security.”

Slater said the ASEAN declaration signifies a regional concern for the management of labor migration and “demonstrated a commitment to regional cooperation to tackle issues arising from cross-border movement of labor.” Migrant workers play a key role in developing economies, he said.

“No doubt, the exports of agricultural and fishery products from Thailand are the efforts of both Thai and foreign workers, from plantation, harvesting, processing and transport,” he said.  “They also help Thai export-oriented sectors from shrimp and rubber to textile in their competitiveness internationally.”

The ILO says migrant workers in Thailand number about 5 percent of the workforce and contributes US $2 billion to Thailand’s economic growth. Slater acknowledged that the issue of opening labor markets is controversial and divisive.

“The management of labor migration is not an undertaking of o­ne individual country, but it is the responsibility of the origin, transit and destination countries to ensure orderly migration,” he said. In Thailand, gains have been made in migrant worker rights  in recent years, said Vitit Muntarbhorn, an international human rights advocate and law professor at Chulalongkorn University.

“For Thailand over the past five years the door has become much more open to migrant workers through a process of regularization,” Vitit told The Irrawaddy.  Under these policies, foreigners working clandestinely have been able to come forward and openly register with the government.  But in the case of Burma, despite Thailand's signing a memorandum of understanding o­n labor migration, the agreement remains largely ineffective.

“That has to be dealt with diplomatically and cautiously,” he said. “We need concrete, accessible, meaningful responses in terms of access to health care, access to wages, guarantees of access to consular help—the basics of life in terms of reasonable responses to their livelihood, including to ensure their safe return to their country of origin,” he said.

He said refugees also need to receive more attention from the government.  “Refugees come into Thailand for even more desperate reasons than migrant workers," he said. "It’s o­nly logical in a way that we should provide equitable treatment so that all sides, all parties, will have access to the basics of life.”

Adapted from: "Asean Declaration Urges More Migrant Worker Rights." The Irrawaddy News. 11 July 2007.

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