Thailand is a strong proponent of bilateral MOUs with respect to migration, and has signed MOUs on labour cooperation with Vietnam and neighbouring states, including Myanmar. Myanmar has additionally signed a MOU with South Korea on a Government-to-Government recruitment and memoranda/ agreements with Japan and Malaysia. None of these documents have been made available by the Myanmar authorities, much like other official documents, as they are treated as confidential. The 2016 MOU and agreement on labour cooperation between Myanmar and Thailand, replaced a previous MOU signed in 2003. These documents - like all others signed by Thailand - have been made publicly available. In 2018, an agreement was reached on recruitment of fishing workers between the two countries, as part of the MOU follow-up process, but this has not been made available by Thailand (and Myanmar). The exact text of this is not publicly known, including to unions or CSOs.
MOU negotiations between Myanmar and Thailand were not transparent - consultations were limited and there was little engagement with workers groups or unions in either country. Private recruitment agencies - central to the MOU recruitment process - appear to have had more input in the process, along with employers in Thailand. National security concerns and associated actors led the negotiations; human rights concerns are therefore unlikely to have featured prominently in the negotiations leading up to the 2016 MOU. However, the Myanmar Government reportedly pushed back consistently on human rights concerns with respect to the fishing agreement in 2018 and was successful in securing stronger labour protections. It is not known to what extent this was influenced by either the global attention on the industry’s human rights issues or the crippling shortage of fishing workers in Thailand.
The text of the 2018 fishing agreement is not available, but the 2016 MOU and agreement between Myanmar and Thailand are light on human rights references, other than some to non-discrimination. There is no special provision/ mechanism on enforcement, and none to consular protection (although it does exist in practice). Given the Thai focus on irregular migration, the focus remains on admissions procedures, prevention of irregular migration and employment, and repatriation of migrant workers, with less focus on meeting labour market needs and the protection of migrants. Coordination between both state parties is well-covered and regularly takes place (with a varied group of government agencies represented). There is little to no parliamentary or other oversight of such agreements (and the migration process in general) in either country. The secrecy of the negotiation and the lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders resulted in a sidelining of workers’ rights. This raises concern that the MOUs are little more than bureaucratic frameworks to enable better state regulation of migration, supported by private commercial interests.
Recommendations to the Royal Thai Government:
- Ensure that Thai bilateral arrangements with countries supplying workers includes binding agreements that commit both countries to protect workers’ human rights and labour rights throughout the duration of their recruitment, employment and return. Civil society and other key stakeholders from both countries should be involved in the drafting of these agreements, which should explicitly bind both states to enforce the ‘employer pays’ principle in relation to recruitment fees, and should include oversight and dispute resolution mechanisms that include participation of key stakeholders including worker organisations.