How many migrant workers are there in Thailand? This might seem a fairly simple question. But it does not have a simple answer. To begin with, the official number reported by the Office of Foreign Workers Administration under the Ministry of Labour represents only registered migrant workers. But there are plenty of non-registered or illegal migrant workers out there.
What complicates matters is the Thai government’s relaxation of the country’s labour regulations, which started in 2009 to allow migrant workers who previously entered Thailand illegally to go through the registration process.
To encourage them to do so, they were allowed to hold temporary work permits for two years following the registration (though they would still have to pass a nationality verification process).
Research by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) based on 2014 data shows that three-quarter of the total number of 1,339,834 registered migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar became legal through registering amid relaxed regulations. This would suggest that there were – and perhaps still are – more illegal migrant workers than legal ones in Thailand.
Because of the lack of reliable official figures of legal and illegal migrant workers, authorities do not have a proper and permanent policy for managing unskilled migrant labour from these neighbouring countries.
Allowing illegal migrant workers to register under the relaxed regulations has affected Thailand in many ways: It has resulted in the number of illegal migrants increasing because many of them believe it is easier to stay in Thailand illegally for a brief period until they are allowed to register under the new relaxed regulations.
This is preferable than their following the legal process for entering Thailand which takes longer and is more expensive – so they would rather take a chance.
Another negative effect for Thailand is that those illegal migrant workers who are waiting for identity verification may take up jobs that violate the Foreign Business Act of 2008, which forbids migrants from engaging in certain kinds of employment.
Under the relaxed rules, migrant workers who are registered are permitted to be employed only as manual labourers and domestic workers.
In practice, however, many work as mobile vendors, retail sales staff, chefs and waiting staff – jobs that migrants workers are not permitted to do under the act.
If the Thai authorities were to be asked, “what kind of jobs are migrant workers allowed to do?”, their answer would reference jobs only applicable to legal migrant workers.
Obviously, migrant workers help boost Thailand’s economy by addressing the shortage of unskilled labour.
However, the dearth of limitations on the numbers of migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and the lack of clarity about job classifications allowed for migrant workers could undermine the management of migrant labour in Thailand.
Also, inefficient management can make migrant workers become prey to human trafficking, which in turn could draw attention from the international community. Some Western countries could use the issue as a reason to impose trade barriers on Thailand.
What should be done? The government should end the relaxation of Thai labour regulations for illegal migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to discourage people from coming to work in Thailand through illegal channels.
Authorities should encourage migrant workers to enter the country legally right from the beginning and set up a single channel for them through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with neighbouring country governments. Meanwhile, Thailand should send back existing illegal migrant workers to their countries.
The government should enforce the law effectively, with particular regard to employment entitlement and jobs prohibited to migrant workers and reserved for Thais.
Employers who take on migrants must cooperate with the authorities seriously and sincerely. Stricter penalties for those who employ illegal migrant workers would encourage them to employ legal ones instead.
Yongyuth Chalamwong, PhD is Research Director, Labour Development, at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and Alongkorn Chaladsook is a researcher at the TDRI.