By Francis Wade
The vast majority of Thais and Malaysians surveyed recently by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) say that illegal migrants in their country should not be entitled to any rights at work.
The poll found that 80 percent of Malaysians and 84 percent of Thais, out of the 1000 surveyed in each country, believe that unauthorised migrants have broken the law. The majority also say that even authorised migrants “cannot expect the same working conditions as nationals when carrying out the same job”.
Levels of disquiet over the presence of migrants were slightly lower in Singapore, and markedly so in South Korea, the two other countries surveyed by the ILO.
The disparity may be explained in part by the varying policies each government has adopted towards handling the influx of alien workers. Korea and Singapore have “more effective policies and systems for the admission and protection of migrant workers’ rights”, the ILO said, and more than three quarters of the public in both countries “were of the view that migrants make a positive net contribution to the economy”.
That is not so in Malaysia and Thailand, despite both economies being heavily reliant on the cheap labour provided by foreign workers, many of whom are illegal and who have escaped poor job prospects in their home countries. In Thailand, around 80 percent of the migrant population is Burmese, the majority of whom worked in low-skilled industries where legal protection is scant.
In a report last year, the ILO accused the Thai government of breaching international law in its denial of work accident compensation, despite high rates of workplace injury.
From time to time horrific accounts emerge of migrants being forced to live and work in squalid conditions: in April a police raid on a garment factory in Bangkok discovered 60 Burmese migrants who had been locked inside, some for up to eight months, and forced to work.
The majority of these had been forced to work on average 16 hours a day and were paid only 200 Thai baht ($US7) a month, something not uncommon in reports given by migrant workers.
Jackie Pollock, who runs the Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP) Foundation in Thailand, said that an archaic construction of migrants as “the other” permeated Thai society, and may account for such high levels of disquiet about their presence in the country.
“Policies in Thailand reinforce the view of migrants as ‘different’; that they should be segregated and controlled,” she told DVB. “They’re only allowed to be in Thailand as workers, not people.”
She said the temporary and transient nature of their lives in Thailand meant also that the government could avoid awarding them the rights that Thai nationals have.
“There’s an unwritten government policy to segregate them – employers are encouraged to house them on the worksite, and in a sense this makes them scary to the public.”
Trafficking of Burmese migrants to Thailand is also rife: many are approached by rackets in Burma with promises of higher wages in Thailand, but poor anti-trafficking enforcement and state corruption mean that the majority are forced into exploitative labour.
Importantly, Pollock said, there has never been any discussion of the integration of migrant workers in Thailand. A scheme is underway to verify illegal migrants, although this is a far cry from actual citizenship and offers no protection against the entrenched discrimination experienced in the workplace.
Indeed the ILO study found that “a key factor in influencing public attitudes to migrant workers in all the countries studied was personal experience of migrant workers”, something that is being tackled through various initiative run by NGOs.