BANGKOK — Chhay Loeum decided to uproot his life, bringing his whole family to Thailand about five years ago in hope of finding a better job to escape poverty in his Cambodian hometown near the neighboring country’s Sa Kaeo province.
Although he misses home, he hasn’t been able to go back since he left, due to both the pandemic restrictions and the weighty debt he still holds in Cambodia, despite the higher income.
“I couldn’t find any job back home. I used to be a rice farmer, but I kept losing money over it,” he told VOD in a recent phone interview.
Speaking fluent Thai, the 52-year-old said he now primarily works in construction sites in and around Bangkok. He said it has not been the easiest life, but he does not have much to complain about.
That was until late last month when he and a few dozen fellow Cambodian workers went to appeal over several issues with the Thai Labor Ministry in Bangkok, including a complaint Loeum filed against his old boss in April that hadn’t been answered.
Instead of getting an answer from the ministry, he was nearly arrested while trying to present their appeals to the officials.
“[The employer] owed us 60,000 baht. I filed a complaint so long ago and I still haven’t been paid,” he said. The amount is about $1,800.
One of the most vulnerable groups in Thai society, migrant workers have long been marginalized, overlooked and exploited. Rights advocates say the latest incident was just another illustration of the government’s broken promises and indifference to long-standing issues of migrant workers with virtually no state protection, especially during the pandemic.
Speaking to VOD seven days after he was rounded up from the ministry by police along with seven other workers on October 29, Loeum said he was released because he has a valid identification for a migrant worker. The rest, however, were charged with illegal entry and ended up in the immigration’s detention center, in contrast to a recent Thai cabinet resolution granting amnesty until February 2023 to Cambodian, Burmese and Laotian workers currently residing in the country whose employers promptly register them. The incident sparked an outcry from several international organizations over the “shocking” rights violation.
Lawyer Koreeyor Manuchae of Thailand’s labor rights advocate Migrant Working Group condemned Thai authorities’ lack of earnestness in respecting workers’ rights, saying it was troubling, especially considering how much the country is dependent on unskilled labor.
“[Issues about] workers are not something that affect only Thailand,” she told VOD over the phone. “This is a despicable action. … The minister does not have the vision to realize that migrant worker rights are ingrained in the mechanism of international relations.”
Most of the workers who went to the ministry were construction workers who suffered from various problems, such as poor conditions in their camps or not getting paid, Koreeyor said, adding they were coordinated by a few Thai nonprofit groups.
Loeum, the migrant worker, said a few representatives from different groups, including himself, went inside the ministry to take a meeting with officials while others waited outside, but his daughter called him just a few minutes later saying police came to check Thai-issued foreign worker identification cards and started rounding up people.
“I went out and showed the police my card, and he just took it. We were pulling it back and forth. He wouldn’t return it to me, saying he needed to check on it and would give it back later. I was afraid my card would be lost, so I had to go along,” he said.
Responding to accusations that its officials called police on the workers, the Labor Ministry claimed the workers didn’t have amnesty yet, so police were “keeping order.”
“The investigation found that the seven undocumented workers did not fit the criteria from the cabinet resolution … which also has yet to be in effect,” the ministry said in a press release five days after the arrests.
The immigration office told VOD on Friday that it had just received reports that all the workers had already been registered online under the Thai cabinet’s resolution, and said they would be released once their status is verified. The seven detained workers had not been released as of publication.
‘Vicious’ Denial of Justice
For Loeum, his experience as a migrant worker had not been “too bad,” but he had often been cheated out of his wage by former employers, he said. The complaint he filed in April — seeking 60,000 baht owed to a total nine workers including Loeum — was his first attempt to seek justice for his wage losses, as workers generally fear Thai police.
“I was recommended [to do it] by a friend who did it before,” he said. “But until now I still haven’t gotten anything out of it.”
Lawyer Koreeyor noted the “vicious barriers” of access to justice that workers face, claiming police employed a “tactic” to deliberately violate their rights.
“A lawyer went there to represent them but was rejected. We had to negotiate, and they limited the time [of meeting],” she said. “And suddenly there were documents with admission of guilt signed by them and a translator, who was also one of the workers.”
That worker was Loeum. At the station, he was tasked with being a translator, despite not knowing how to read Thai.
“They forced me to sign documents. I can’t read, so I asked what documents,” he said. “They wouldn’t read them to me … just saying it was for paperwork.”
When asked about these alleged violations, Ratthachai Srivichai, police chief for Bangkok’s Din Daeng district where the workers were taken in for interrogation, denied any knowledge of it, claiming the arrests were not made by his officers. He refused to answer any further questions.
Upon hearing that Ratthachai denied Din Daeng’s police involvement, Koreeyor said he was lying with “no shame.”
Immigration department’s deputy chief and spokesperson Archayon Kraithong also said he did not know details of the case, but said he assumed the lawyer might be barred due to the office’s Covid-19 control policy.
This is a despicable action. … The minister does not have the vision to realize that migrant worker rights are ingrained in the mechanism of international relations.
Loeum said he was also asked if they were paid to stage a protest. Loeum didn’t characterize the workers’ action as a protest.
“I didn’t know if there was any protest. … I said those undocumented workers just wanted to ask [the ministry] to help register them,” he said. “I told them I would be willing to get hit and killed by a car [if that can prove my words]. We went there on our own.”
Koreeyor, the lawyer for MWG, which also had representatives at the ministry that day, said this incident exhibited how little the Thai government respects its migrant workers.
“They used words that are so vile [to] mislead people that it was a protest. It wasn’t an organized protest. They were there to petition,” she said. “It’s a hideous way of communication aiming to discredit migrant workers and those handing their support to them. It belittled the workers’ predicament.”
When responding publicly to the arrest, the Labor Ministry took an opportunity to lambast one specific Thai labor group — the Labor Network for People’s Rights — for using the workers as “political tools” to cause “disorder in society.” LNPR openly supports the recent youth-led democracy movement, while the current Labor Minister is from Thailand’s military-backed ruling party, Palang Pracharath.
Activist Thanaporn Wichan, who leads LNPR, said the advocate groups organized the petition because they were overwhelmed with worker complaints and wanted to bring them all before officials, and they had already made an appointment with the ministry.
“We have problems about migrant workers that have accumulated for so long, and we continue to receive a lot of complaints,” she said over the phone. “Why, with all the regulations and rules issued by the government and the minister, their quality of life remains the same?”
No Safeguard, No Security
Many past incidents have shown how migrant workers in Thailand are often disregarded and mistreated with little access to support. Earlier this year, the government specifically blamed migrant workers for the surge in Covid-19 infections. Harsh quarantine rules were imposed, including an order to seal off construction sites without any immediate relief measures, which critics slammed as discriminatory, and that it would only put them at even greater risk of infection.
When Covid-19 cases surged in Thailand early this year and again in the third quarter, Cambodia’s number of imported infections soared, and returning workers infected with Covid-19 clogged border provinces’ quarantine camps.
Loeum said he has never seen any officials, Thai or Cambodian, coming to the construction sites to see if the social distancing rules were properly applied. He said he heard from the workers at other camps that those who were not infected still had to live close to Covid-19 patients.
“I wish they were better taken care of, because the outbreak spread so quickly,” he said. “I’d like to help them negotiate with their employers to move those not infected out of the camps, but [the employers] never really listen to us.”
They forced me to sign documents. I can’t read, so I asked what documents. They wouldn’t read them to me … just saying it was for paperwork.
According to the data from September published by the Department of Employment, up to 65 percent of the 2.3 million documented migrant workers currently in Thailand are from four of its neighboring countries, of which around 163,000 are Cambodian. Before the pandemic, Cambodian labor advocate Central estimated there were up to 2 million Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, with 20 percent undocumented.
On paper, registered migrant workers in Thailand were entitled to basic employee benefits and health insurance under the country’s social security program even before the pandemic, but Thanaporn of LNPR said access to benefits is near impossible if they don’t know their rights or the language.
Employers who withhold workers’ identification documents are also supposed to be punished with a maximum six months’ jail time and fine of 100,000 baht, or around $3,000, but Thanaporn said the government consistently fails to enforce this law, and the practice remains common.
“It’s the officials’ responsibility to put pressure on employers,” she said. “Why do you let employers hire workers illegally? … Why don’t government agencies regulate employers?”
Having a good employer is all that matters to Loeum. Like many Cambodian migrant workers, Loeum said he had dealt with a fair share of bad bosses but his current employer is “so good, like I never met before over these years.”
Though Thailand opened its airports to passengers arriving from Cambodia for quarantine-free travel on November 1, its land borders remain closed. Migrant workers however continue to try to cross the border to escape joblessness. On Saturday, the military’s internal security office said over 3,000 were arrested in the past week, of which nearly 1,000 were Cambodian.
“[A permit] for one person costs over 10,000 baht,” Loeum said, or around $300. “They come here knowing it’s illegal, but it would cost them more than 20,000 baht to get a passport alone. They don’t have the money. … They are in trouble, can’t feed themselves, so they sneak in here.”
Like the country’s other ambiguous Covid-19 legislation, MWG’s Koreeyor said the process for registering foreign laborers has been overly complicated and changing, which she called unfair to the workforce.
“They’ve issued 13 resolutions about migrant workers during the [pandemic], which have been very confusing and causing damage,” she said. “It’s disorienting even for employers. Wouldn’t that be worse for employees?”
Thailand’s businesses are still demanding labor from migrant workers, and Thai officials have tried to bring workers in to meet labor shortages with Cambodian counterparts since at least August, before the border reopened. Koreeyor felt the onus was on the Thai government to assist the workers willing to fulfill the country’s labor needs.
Even the cabinet resolution, which is meant to give amnesty to undocumented workers, also holds a high barrier of entry for workers: For example, Koreeyor reported that workers couldn’t get health certificates, as required in the resolution, within the set timeframe because hospitals delayed their appointments out of Covid-19 transmission fears.
“We need to reassure them that they should come work with us because we are safe, we are fair, and we will protect their rights,” she said. “It was most unacceptable that this happened under the roof of the labor ministry itself.”
“Even though they are undocumented, they have the rights to petition.”
CORRECTION Feb. 4, 4:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Thai Immigration department’s deputy chief and spokesperson Archayon Kraithong.