The best likely result for migrant workers seeking remedy in this corridor is getting their dues or a refund of official fees. Compensation is uncommon while accountability for abusers is rare. The grievance redressal system in Myanmar primarily operates as a mediation or negotiation to ‘solve’ a problem. MOLIP rules place overall responsibility on the recruitment agencies to resolve problems faced by workers, including in Thailand. Worker complaints within Myanmar, estimated at 100 a year, are usually filed through civil society groups or worker associations. This is a small number given the widespread abuses in the recruitment process. There are many fora for filing complaints but most relating to recruitment agents tend to be settled by MOEAF/MOLIP and few workers go to court. Where complaints are against brokers, they are usually handled by the police. If and when these reach court, neither prosecutors nor judges prioritise them. Punishments, in the rare instances of conviction, are inadequate. On the whole, the grievance redressal machinery is slow and centralised with all decisions being made in Naypyitaw. When complaints are brought against Thai employers, the involvement of recruitment agencies and MOEAF in the negotiations also creates a conflict of interest as Myanmar recruiters cannot afford to antagonise employers in the highly competitive market. Myanmar also has labour attaches in Thailand who assist in such resolution processes, but they have limited resources and also rely on support from recruitment agencies.
Thailand’s grievance redressal machinery is also largely oriented towards settlement. The complaint system is fragmented and attempts to provide integrated centres have not entirely convinced, including with fisher workers. Although domestic and agricultural migrant workers have the same rights, in practice it is far more difficult for them to access complaint mechanisms, partly due to their relative isolation or irregular status (common in both sectors), while migrant sex-workers rarely seek legal remedy due to concern of arrest and deportation. Most workers tend to rely on family and friends or NGOs for assistance, instead of officially complaining. Access to civil claims and criminal complaints is also available to migrant workers. It is not clear whether the state provides legal aid, but some NGOs do so along with other practical support necessary for workers to be able to seek judicial remedy. This is essential as migrant workers have far more difficulty accessing mechanisms due to discrimination, language and other barriers. Court proceedings are lengthy and workers who go to court often have to return home regardless of the case being pending, further discouraging others to do so. DLPW and other authorities also encourage out-of-court settlement, often to the detriment of the workers. Compensation features largely in human-trafficking and forced labour cases. Retaliation against workers and those supporting them is common. Workers face threats of being fired and informally ‘blacklisted’ amongst local employers, while large companies also file counter-cases for defamation. This has a chilling effect on reporting and future complaints. Prosecutions of recruitment agents and brokers are negligible. Despite an increase in inspections, there have been few prosecutions for labour violations in the fishing sector too. Data on trafficking prosecutions is unclear. Convictions, across the board on labour rights issues, are rare.
Recommendations to the Myanmar government:
- Impose a mandatory minimum settlement, in consultation with civil society groups and other stakeholders, to encourage genuine negotiation and to prevent employers and recruitment agents from persuading workers to accept disproportionately small sums in settlement.
- Ensure that complaints against recruitment agents in Myanmar are independently investigated, without involvement of MOEAF or other recruitment agents, and that appropriate compensation is paid to workers where breaches are found.
- Ensure that labour attaches in Thailand and elsewhere are sufficiently resourced and able to act independently to protect the interests of the workers.
Recommendations to the Royal Thai Government:
- In cooperation with civil society and workers’ groups, review the complaint and redressal mechanism currently available to ensure that they are simplified and fit for purpose including being accessible for all migrant workers without requiring the need of NGOs, including domestic and agricultural workers.
- Ensure that government funding of shelters and legal aid services is made accessible to migrant workers.
- Ensure that all callers to official hotlines are clearly informed of their right to submit formal complaints and seek compensation, and conduct a complementary information campaign to inform workers of the circumstances in which they have the right to change employers and the process for doing so.
- Remove defamation as a criminal offence and ensure that workers and their supporters are not prosecuted for complaints made and/or labour activism.