The economies of Thailand and Myanmar are heavily reliant on migrant workers: for labour and remittances respectively. Despite that, a long-term national migration policy and migrant workers and their rights are not a particularly high priority in either country. At least three million workers from Myanmar work in Thailand - an upper estimate is five million - although official figures on both sides are lower. Overseas migration for work is now largely viewed by the Myanmar authorities as a means to help the state achieve national development goals, reduce poverty and relieve pressure on the domestic labour market. In Thailand’s booming economy - where most the migrants are unskilled workers from neighbouring countries and many are irregular/ undocumented - they are pragmatically tolerated amidst historic xenophobia. The focus of the Thai government remains controlling irregular migration through a carrot and stick policy of regularisation and deportation. Controlling the flow from Myanmar however is particularly difficult given the long and porous borders between the two countries which facilitates easy informal migration - within an entire system of brokers and payoffs.
Given the reality that migration is a long-term scenario for both countries, they have been independently attempting to develop migration policies and strengthen the largely inadequate legal and regulatory framework, working closely with ILO and IOM. Progress however has been patchy: a lack of coherence and clarity remains endemic, amidst a general lack of consistent enforcement. In recent years there has been a renewed focus - led by Thailand - on formal recruitment of workers based on a 2016 MOU and agreement. Although at times represented as a Government-to- Government process, this is largely an umbrella bureaucratic framework for private sector recruitment agencies to match workers to jobs. With the military playing a prominent role in governance in both countries, security concerns/ agencies invariably dominate the discussion on migration. This is also reflected in the burdensome emigration/ visa processes in both countries. In Thailand, job mobility for migrant workers is very restricted and there is virtually no pathway to citizenship. Both countries also place restrictions on migration. In a bid to restrict numbers of unskilled workers, Thailand only allows them from the bordering states (Myanmar, Cambodia and Lao PDR) and Vietnam. Myanmar officially allows workers to migrate to only some countries, largely in Southeast, East Asia and the Middle East, although irregular migration to China is significant and appears to be largely ignored as that to Thailand. Previous restrictions on Myanmar women domestic workers going to Singapore and Hong Kong - largely due to protection concerns - have now been removed.
Recommendations to the Royal Thai Government:
- Remove all legal restrictions and complex bureaucratic processes on workers changing employers before the ends of their contracts, including any requirement of refunding fees to the former employer under the current five permissible circumstances laid down by the Ministry of Labour.
- Conduct a formal, independent review of Thailand’s national migration policy in relation to its foreign workforce. The review should solicit views from a wide range of stakeholders and should address issues including gender sensitivity, the impact of foreign workers’ job mobility, the complexity of the MOU hiring process, and the potential and feasibility of a government to government recruitment model based on an ‘employer pays’ principle.