By Joseph Allchin
Thailand’s recent election has offered the possibility that thousands of Burmese migrant workers will receive a minimum wage of 300 baht [US $10] per day, but a rights group has warned that there may be an uphill struggle for many Burmese to gain this entitlement.
The victorious Pheua Thai party swept to victory in the 3rd of July poll with a majority of seats in Thailand’s parliament. The party was overwhelmingly backed by working class Thai’s who have backed the party and its former incarnations, since 2001, specifically because of pro-poor policies such as this.
Burmese migrant workers rarely get anywhere near 300 baht per day in the core industries that they work in, namely construction, fishing and manufacturing.
The 300 baht figure compares with estimates for a labourer in Burma receiving some where in the region of 500 kyat per day, equivalent to roughly US 60 cents per day. Although the value of the Kyat fluctuates.
However Andy Hall from the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) warns that many of the migrant workers in marginal or semi official work will have an uphill struggle to obtain their legal entitlement;
“Those migrants who work for exploitative employers, unless they come together collectively in strength to negotiate for their rights and bargain, will likely face the same situation as now, they will not reach the level of rights provided by the law and the employer will try to avoid paying minimum salaries,” Mr Hall told DVB.
One of the key factors will be registration, with many if not a majority of Burmese working in Thailand illegally. The previous Democrat government sought to register all migrant, or ‘alien’ workers but seemingly failed, and instead placed another deadline for migrants to register, which is now set to the 14th July. This scheme became known as the Nationality Verification (NV) scheme and came under criticism as being inaccessible to many workers and also problematic back home in Burma.
Hall suggests that registered workers in larger more accountable companies such as the larger food and fish processing plants will receive the minimum level; “Those migrants who are working in regular ‘standard setting’ factories and are registered/passed NV, particularly those working in relation to exported goods and who generally adhere to labour law, will likely get the minimum wage”.
One major stumbling block that has seemingly been a silent policy of all Thai governments has been the promulgation of Special Economic Zones (SEZ), especially in the border town of Mae Sot where policy has evolved as the garment industry has flourished on the cheap wages that Burmese labour commands. Here workers are often paid on a piece meal basis and usually receive somewhere in the region of 100 baht per day.
Legislation in such zones is a gray area at the best of times, pressure of legislation moreover could drive industry from Mae Sot to Dawei where a Thai company, Ital-Thai is constructing a major deep sea port and industrial park. This will no doubt offer worse wages than even a Thai SEZ.
Whilst minimum wage hikes were present in both major party’s manifestos, critics have claimed that Thailand will struggle to be able to afford this and other schemes promised by the Pheua Thai party. Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister has also promised to reduce corporation tax to compensate companies burdened by a larger wage bill.
However, Thailand like Burma has a burgeoning military budget. This issue is scarcely mentioned in the electoral arena of either country, least of all by those who claim that a minimum wage is unaffordable. It did however become a parliamentary issue in Thailand when it was revealed in August 2010 that Thailand’s military budget for 2011 would be 170 billion baht; when the military held a coup in the country in 2006 the military’s budget was 85 billion baht.
Migrant workers comprise some 5% of the Thai work force but are said by HRDF to account for some 7% of the country’s GDP. The incumbent Democrat government had been criticised for a planned deal that would mean that foreign workers would require private health insurance, whilst Thais would be eligible for the state run worker’s compensation fund. A plan that rights group claim would be contrary to Thailand’s treaty obligations on not discriminating against foreign workers.