By Francis Wade
The void left in Thailand’s labour force by the nearly 200,000 migrants that fled the country to escape heavy flooding in recent months will be filled by thousands of Burmese currently being brought into the country.
Burmese account for more than half of those who have fled since October, when Thailand was hit by its worst flooding in more than half a century and close to 10,000 factories, many of which employ cheap foreign labour, were inundated.
With many deciding to stay put in their home countries until the floodwaters finally recede, the Thai government has shown signs of desperation. Some of the 100,000 Burmese will be flown into the country by specially hired airplanes, according to Pawit Khiangphon, from the Thai labour ministry’s employment department.
Around 30,000 have already arrived, the Manager Online magazine reported, and a special checkpoint was being set up at Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi airport. Additional checkpoints would be introduced at border crossings.
The move signifies how dependent the Thai economy is on cheap migrant labour from neighbouring Burma. Around three million Burmese live and work in Thailand, and the government is currently engaged in a programme to have the nearly one million working here illegally verified as legal workers.
It has warned however that those who return to Thailand are required to rejoin with their old employers, otherwise they will be deemed alien workers.
Conditions for migrant workers in Thailand are often difficult, with many denied the workplace rights, particularly accident compensation, afforded to Thai workers. The situation is compounded by the fact that many work in low-skilled industries such as fishing and construction, which carry high risks of injury.
As thousands of Burmese began to escape Bangkok when the flooding hit, stories emerged of exploitation by Thai police, who arrested and fined migrants for leaving their zones of registration despite the emergency nature of the situation.
Even those who managed to avoid arrest reported problems upon entering Burma. Several government-backed militia groups operate unofficial checkpoints close to the border that many returning migrants chose to pass through, rather than risking harassment and possible arrest at the official ones. Some were charged up to $US50 to cross into Burma.
The flooding is estimated to have cost insurers up to $US11 billion, according to Swiss Reinsurance, and the World Bank has ranked it as the world’s fourth costliest natural disaster. Industrial production has since nose-dived in the country, with some predicting that the floods could hamper supplies of hard-disk drives well into the future, given that Thailand is the world’s leading producer.