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New rules, new debts: slavery fears rise for migrant workers in Thailand

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New rules, new debts: slavery fears rise for migrant workers in Thailand

By Matt Blomberg and Nanchanok Wongsamuth



A Cambodian migrant workers looks over the sea on a docked trawler in Ban Phe, Thailand, on June 27, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matt Blomberg.


PHNOM PENH/RAYONG, Thailand, August 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Leng Lyda swapped Cambodia for a fishing town in Thailand hoping to find a job in the seafood industry, he was ready for hard work. But he wasn't prepared for the delay, or the debt.


The 22-year-old landed a job as soon as he arrived earlier this year, but without the right to work, he spent three months living rough on the docks and racking up debts while his employer processed the papers to hire him as a migrant worker.


"All I can do is wait," Lyda said, sitting in a ramshackle cafe as Cambodians dragged giant nets onto trawlers behind him.


"After, I have no choice but to work for him until I repay the debt," he said, explaining that he would start his job owing at least 30,000 Thai baht ($980) to his employer due to the registration fee and other expenses. "My fate is in his hands."


Millions of migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos toil in Thailand's low-skilled sectors, where limited state oversight and unscrupulous employment practices leave many vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery, activists say.


The Southeast Asian nation last year launched an overhaul of the registration process for migrant workers, granting them the same labour rights as local hires, including access to free healthcare, pension contributions and child allowances.


In the first phase of the revamp, the government aims to ensure two million legitimate migrant workers are registered afresh - a process that must be carried out by employers but paid for by workers earning as little as 10,000 baht a month.


Visas, work permits and health checks - the conditions of the new agreement - cost a total of about 6,700 baht.


However migrants and labour activists said that employers, middlemen and brokers are inflating the cost and saddling workers with fresh debts - trapping many in exploitative workplaces as they struggle to pay off what they owe.


Debt bondage is one of the world's most prevalent forms of modern slavery, which affects 610,000 people in Thailand, shows the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.



Dozens of migrant workers in the eastern province of Rayong told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they had been charged up to 25,000 baht by their employers to be registered under the new system - almost four times the cost set out by the government.


"(Migrant) workers (in Thailand) mostly get their information from the employers and brokers who take advantage of them and profit by keeping a percentage of their pay," said Sa Saroeun with the Raks Thai Foundation, a legal aid charity.


"Migrant workers live on the edge of society, afraid to do wrong, so whatever their bosses tell them, they will pay," added Saroeun, who works to inform migrants about their legal rights.


The labour ministry is telling migrant workers the real costs of registration with the new system and encouraging them to report employers who charge higher fees, said Suwan Duangta, inspector-general at the ministry's department of employment.


"Workers are not able to submit requests on their own," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "If the employers charge more, the workers can file a complaint to the department, and then the department will ask the employer to return the money."


Yet charities that help migrant workers said they had little confidence in the state's message finding its intended audience.


Thailand has three million migrant workers on its books but the United Nations' migration agency (IOM) estimates there are at least two million more working illegally across the country.


But the overhaul is unlikely to encourage undocumented workers or new arrivals seeking work to become registered, according to Reuben Lim, an IOM spokesman in Thailand.


Informal fees, time-consuming visits to government agencies, and confusion over legal processes have long dissuaded migrants from obtaining legitimate jobs, both activists and workers said.


"Many migrant workers continue to believe that the cumbersome process does not outweigh the speed, flexibility and cost-effectiveness of irregular channels," Lim of the IOM said.



When about 30 Cambodian factory workers were informed of the new system at a workshop in Rayong in June, just six of them said they would be able to cover the registration cost up front.


The rest told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the only option was to ask their bosses to pay the fee on their behalf, then become indebted to them and face deductions from their wages.


Bosses often baulk at the lengthy registration process and instead turn to middlemen, according to labour activists who say this practice increases migrant workers' debts with no guarantee that the terms of the repayment will be transparent or fair.


"There's still no mechanism to ensure that the deduction will be legal," said Chonticha Tangworamongkon, director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which provides legal aid to migrants.


Like many other migrants across Thailand, Cambodian construction worker Mao Malis has no idea how much money she owes her boss - or how long it will take to clear the debt.


"For now, its impossible to change employer," said Malis, whose employer in Ban Phe - a fishing town 200 km (124 miles) south of the capital, Bangkok - takes about 15% of her 11,000 baht salary each month to repay her registration costs.


"He has invested in me, so I am stuck here until he agrees that I've paid everything back."


(Reporting by Matt Blomberg and Nanchanok Wongsamuth, Writing by Matt Blomberg; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)



-- © Copyright Reuters 2019-09-02

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Sounds like Thai employers have been studying the history of coal miners in the US in the early 1900's. They "owed their souls to the company store". And who do these poor Cambodians, in the final analysis, owe their souls to?

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1 hour ago, webfact said:

Visas, work permits and health checks - the conditions of the new agreement - cost a total of about 6,700 baht.

And  one  month later, if your  lucky they last that  long,  leave with  no warning and you  have to repeat the farcical amount of  paperwork and fees  yet again, it's  no  joke and ridiculous requirements by the useless Thai govt.

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This doesn't sound at all like a Buddhist philosophy. In fact, it sounds quite the opposite. I'm confused. 

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35 minutes ago, Srikcir said:

The Global Slavery Index for Thailand for 2019 is rather curious.

For 2018 it reported:



But for 2019:



No other data reported by Thailand?

No slavery?

Very "fishy" indeed. It also seems that the population has mushroomed by almost 800,000 people in the span of a single year (and 2019 is not even over yet). Meanwhile, GDP per person has jumped by almost exactly 1,000 dollars. Oh Thailand, what a marvelous success story you are! You have not only managed one of the highest population growth rates but also one of the highest annual GDP increases in the world.

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3 million guest workers. That's a lot of TM30's and that's just for the registered. Add in the further 2 million and it shows what a fiasco this reporting really is.

Edited by emptypockets
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