New tactics to help migrant workers

It is now clear that this pandemic has hit vulnerable populations the hardest. Despite being one of the most vulnerable groups in society, migrant workers, including their family members, have been left with little care from the government. Despite helping the Thai economy for so long, there is no clear policy and little assistance to support migrant workers during this pandemic. This has to change if we seriously want to curb this crisis.

In this article, we would like to propose three changes in the management of migrant workers during Covid-19 as follows:

Firstly, the government needs to resume active Covid-19 screening among migrant workers. According to the Foreign Workers Administration Office, Department of Employment, as of June 2021, there were 2,162,863 migrant workers in Thailand. By the end of May 2021, only 339,331 migrant workers had received Covid-19 tests, accounting for around 15% of the total migrant workers in Thailand. Considering that the previous and current rounds of outbreak happened in several communities of migrant workers, such as in construction camps, we would expect the number of Covid-19 tests among migrant workers to be higher.

This suggests a serious deficiency in Covid testing and screening. The majority of migrant workers in Thailand take up manual labour, the nature of which makes it not suitable, or at all possible, to be adjusted into the work from home (WFH) practice. This means that many migrant workers are at risk of being in contact with other people, and thus are at a higher risk of infection. As of July 22, there were 72,763 migrant workers who had tested positive, accounting for around 43% of the total number of migrants who had been screened.

Vendors and migrant workers in Klong Toey market queue for blood tests to check for Covid-19 antibodies in an effort to control virus transmission in the area ahead of the latest reopening of the market on June 4. Pornprom Satrabhaya :Source Bangkok Post

However, the actual number of infections among migrant workers is expected to be higher, as the government stopped active testing on July 5. If testing is not free and available for migrant workers, they may unknowingly fuel the infection wave as they continue working and coming into contact with others.

This brings us to the second suggestion, which is offering free vaccinations for migrant workers. According to MOPH Immunization Center Control, as of July 19, there were 170,007 foreigners in Thailand who had received Covid-19 vaccines. This accounts for only 3.47% of the total number of foreigners living in Thailand. Around 42% of these foreigners are from Myanmar, followed by China (19%), Cambodia (7.1%), and the Lao PDR (5.7%).

While the above statistics do not indicate the employment status of these foreigners, it could be assumed that some migrant workers have been vaccinated against the contagious virus. However, the rate of inoculation is so low that it might not be possible to create herd immunity in time to support the reopening of our economy.

Thus, a vaccination programme which includes migrant workers of all statuses must start as soon as possible. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the integration of public health volunteers’ development in factories, establishments and communities was signed between the Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Public Health and the Thai Red Cross on June 22. This is a great measure to deploy health volunteers to facilitate the vaccine rollout. With a lack of public health personnel, having these health volunteers trained to vaccinate migrant workers is a great way forward. We can now recruit more health volunteers and train and implement the vaccination programme in local health facilities, such as in district health centres.

The third suggestion is about providing emergency assistance to migrant workers. There are many migrant workers who were affected by the order to temporarily close several business activities, who currently have no access to basic necessities, such as, water, sanitary items, medicine and food. These are vital to maintaining their health during this pandemic. Hospitals are already at their full capacity so we do not want anyone to suffer any more preventable diseases.

At present, we see the majority of support for migrant workers coming from civil society organisations (CSOs), while the government has not provided much assistance. This is quite baffling, considering the government has so much information about migrant workers, such as where they live, who they work for, how much they earn, which sector they are in, and so on. This information has been collected during work permit applications, and is updated every one or two years upon permit renewal. It would be easy for the government to provide support to migrant workers, if it chose to.

We would like to reiterate that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Migrant workers have been, and will always be, vital to Thailand’s economic growth. As the country is soon to transform from an ageing to an aged society, our economy will be more and more dependent on migrant workers. Taking better care of them will help keep them in the system, which is crucial for both disease control, and economic recovery.

Boonwara Sumano, PhD, is a senior research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and N Aneksomboonphon is an independent contributor. Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published: Bangkok Post Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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