How to protect over 2 million migrant workers in Thailand from Covid-19

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Yongyuth Chalamwong

As Covid-19 continues to spread around the world, Thai people who work abroad in 119 countries have been affected by prevention measures, such as country lockdown, border closure, international flight restriction, ban on social grouping, obligatory face mask wearing, and social distancing, that have been enforced in almost every country.

Among approximately 142,000 Thai workers who work abroad, more than 100,000 of them are in South Asian countries, followed by 6,000 people in Europe and America, 27,000 people in Middle East countries, and lastly around 700 people in African countries.

Having been in self-quarantine for months, they are now facing a problem of income shortage and diminishing savings. For those who are lucky enough to have responsible employers, they are provided with supply such as rice and dry food to sustain life. However, a lot of workers, especially in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Israel, whose employers are not very responsible and who are unable to return to Thailand, have to seek help from the departments of employment and Thai embassies in order not to starve themselves. Thai officials should be looking for approaches to negotiate with the authorities of those countries so that vulnerable Thai workers are supported. Considering their economic statuses, we believe that they are able to provide help.

The key factor, however, is how long those countries will be affected by Covid-19. If it lasts for too long, some industries will have to shut down. If that is the case, Thai workers will be directly affected and lose their jobs. Eventually, they will “request to come back home.” With thousands of workers requesting to come back, Thailand will face another wave of difficult tasks.

Countries in Southeast Asia such as Singapore and Malaysia are seeing their Covid-19 case numbers rocketing. They will definitely need to enforce all kinds of strict measures to contain the spread. That means Thai workers in Singapore and/or Malaysia where the businesses are temporarily closed will eventually have to return home just like what is happening now.

The most alarming issue at the moment is illegal workers. There are only around 2,000 and 3,000 legal Thai workers working in Singapore and Malaysia, respectively. In Malaysia, it is believed that more than 20,000 Thai workers do not have work permits. If the businesses, whether in agricultural sector or restaurants, that hire these Thai workers work as daily employees are closed, Thai workers will want to travel back to Thailand through three southern border provinces. If the number of returnees is in thousands, the government’s burden of diagnosing, monitoring, and quarantining will increase tremendously considering the area’s relatively small capacity of healthcare facilities compared with that of other provinces. The Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Public Health, and the COVID-19 and Emergency Operations Center, as well as the provincial governors, must be prepared in advance.

Despite all that, another worrisome issue is how to take care of more than 2.7 million migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries who are still in Thailand. There are over 1.8 million from Myanmar, over 650,000 from Cambodia and over 280,000 from Lao PDR. They spread out in almost every province of Thailand, working in both large export businesses in coastal provinces and SMEs in Bangkok, vicinity, and metropolitan areas nationwide.

Most of these workers come to work in Thailand and send money back home. They try to save as much as they could, thus their poor living condition. Migrant workers’ communities, for example, the National Housing Agency’s residence called “Long Goong Flat” in Samut Sakhon is very crowded: 3-5 people share one apartment room. Some sleep on the corridors. If Covid-19 reaches these communities, some of which house tens of thousands of migrant workers, they will find it difficult to practice self-quarantine in their apartments to monitor the symptoms for 14 days. Social distancing will be impossible to follow because there is no room for them to do so.

I brought up this topic not to cause panic against families of migrant workers or in Thai communities. It is well aware that the Ministry of Labor, in collaboration with the Thai Red Cross and relevant agencies, has been conducting a carpet communication program to inform migrant workers in their “mother tongues” through many channels so that they understand the danger of Covid-19 and know how to protect themselves and their families and stay safe from the disease. This is such as admirable feat, but it must be improved to cover all ethnicities coming to work in Thailand, including Mon people, Buddhist Karens, Christian Karens, Burmese, Hmong, Lahu, whose main languages are Cambodian, Lao, etc. These people are also everywhere in Thailand. We must take into account their sources of employment, and more importantly, their employers who are closest to the workers should be responsible for their livelihood. If an outbreak reaches the migrant communities, Thai communities will also be affected and the work of public health will increase enormously. Supposed a worker were infected and e lived with other 20,000 migrant workers and hundreds of contacts around him, where would we quarantine them all? We ask the Ministry of Labor not to lower the bar in monitoring the Covid-19 cases in the enormous group of migrant workers in Thailand.

Do not forget that we don’t know how many illegal migrant workers are out there: thousands or tens of thousands. These people are often temporary or daily employees, moving periodically, scattering in the fields and gardens that are far away from the eyes of the officials to monitor. This is another risk group that needs to be taken seriously in terms of health and legal issue.

Finally, I strongly support the Ministry of Labor to take proactive measures and look after migrant workers. It is important to understand that their living condition makes them vulnerable to the outbreak of Covid-19. “Prevention is better than cure.”

This proposal is part of “TDRI Policy Series on Fighting COVID-19”

1Government must mobilize resources to solve the COVID-19 crisis and ease people’s suffering in a comprehensive and straight-to-the point manner
2Fit-to-fly doesn’t prevent COVID-19 but is an increased burden to Thais abroad
3Beware of violence during pandemic as home may not be a safe place for everyone
4Covid-19 emphasizes the need to bridge the digital divide and reduce online educational inequality