Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Demands for the Protection of Migrant Workers’ Rights by the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee (TLSC)

Demands for the Protection of Migrant Workers’ Rights

on the Occasion of

International Migrant Workers’ Day

December 18, 2006

Submitted by

the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee (TLSC)

On December 18, B.E.2549 (2006), the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee (TLSD) organized a campaign march to Government House and the Ministry of Labour to mark International Labour Day. On this occasion, TLSC representatives and allies formally urged the Thai government to extend its protection to migrant workers in a more serious manner with the following core content:

Currently, most migrant workers in Thailand are from three neighbouring countries; Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. In general, they work as labourers or in labour-intensive work, constituting a workforce that is the most neglected, exploited and denied adequate access to labour protection, social welfare and minimum benefits.

In most cases, these migrant workers have faced many pressing problems, including:

- No clear legal status.

- Lack of basic knowledge of labour laws.

- Cheating on wages (even when earning below the minimum wage).

- Working longer hours than regular workers.

- Very limited or no legal access to health care and services.

This situation clearly indicates how most migrant workers have been treated, with subsequent impacts on Thai society as a whole. In fact, these workers are fully entitled to basic minimum rights, which should have been duly accorded to them, as human beings and workers. One of the main causes of their suffering is their lack of awareness of their rights as workers under the law. At the same time, legal mechanisms for the protection of migrant workers are not in place, or not easily accessible, due to the language barrier between officials and migrant workers, their inadequately defined legal status, and practices without due regard to their basic rights as migrant workers. In addition, the failure to organize collectively to gain a stronger bargaining position within the framework of labour relations is also a big obstacle to them gaining due recognition. On top of this, they are also faced with a rather negative attitude towards them in Thai society at large. With all these odds against them, migrant workers in Thailand have inevitably been subject to inhumane exploitation with various violations of workers’ rights. This grave situation is likely to worsen if nothing is done to deal with the problems.

1. Current Problems and Issues on Migrant Workers

1. Problems in registering migrant workers and work permit applications are urgent. Despite some earnest attempts by the Thai government to address this issue, by a policy of registering all migrant workers for a number of years now, the competent agency faces a decreasing number of migrant workers seeking extensions for their work permits. The obvious problems are listed below:

· Migrant workers are not adequately informed of their rights and obligations regarding registration, since the targets of information or public relations provided by government agency are mostly employers. Even when information is provided, the materials are all published in the Thai language, while very little information is disseminated in the languages of the migrant workers.

· Migrant workers have found the registration process too complicated and the timeframe too short, resulting in poor or incomplete understanding of the procedures by both migrant workers and employers, and failures to register in time.

· Some migrant workers change their place of employment or employers without properly informing the authorities or officially changing their employment status data. This is basically due to the common practice of employers holding vital documents and work permits. Very often employers themselves do not bother to inform competent officials about changes. The situation becomes more confused when different officials or employment offices adopt different procedures or practices. Subsequently, properly registered migrant workers find it confusing and are unable to extend their work permits.

· A high rate of turnover is found in many enterprises, while the policy on registration of migrant workers is too rigid and not adaptable to such rates of turnover. Thus, many migrant workers are not able to register changes, resulting in illegal hiring practices.

· Migrant workers have to shoulder high costs or expenses in Thailand, being compelled to pay all the expense incurred in employment, which are deducted from their monthly wages by the employer.

2. Problems in the Hiring Process and Welfare System.

· Migrant workers often do not enjoy the legal minimum wage, overtime pay, working hours and working conditions as regulated by labour laws. Many of them are forced to work more than 8 hours a day but earn less than the legal minimum wage and without overtime pay.

· Many employers have adopted the practice of seizing worker permits or any other form of identification of migrant workers in their employ, as a form of guarantee or security. This situation has placed migrant workers in difficult situations, if they are arrested outside the workplace or try to access public health services.

· Migrant workers are often subject to various forms of abuse; physical, emotional, psychological, and even sexual, with the confines of the workplace, but they are not in any position to seek redress or access to labour protection mechanisms.

· It is often difficult for migrant workers to change their employer or workplace due to complicated legal procedures and/or bureaucratic processes. With no employment choices, they are forced to toil for one employer, regardless of exploitation or inhumane working conditions. The alternative is to find employment elsewhere, although it is illegal and there is no access to labour protection.

· Migrant workers are not able to organize their own labour unions, to address their pressing problems and issues and to conduct effective and formal negotiations with employers, due to limits in the legal framework.

· Migrant workers are almost always subject to automatic pay deductions, presumably for all sorts of questionable reasons, welfare, tools, protective gears, etc. without any means to complain or to refuse such systematic exploitation.

3. Labour Rights Protection and the Justice System

· Based on current complaint procedures for labour rights protection under the relevant labour laws, migrant workers have limited access, due to complicated communication channels and skills, language barriers and, most importantly, prevailing prejudices and negative attitudes towards migrant workers.

· The current labour protection process consumes too much time, whilst the deportation process is quick. By law, migrant workers are given only one (1) week to exercise their right to change jobs or to be hired by a new employer. This situation inevitably creates more and more labour disputes. Meanwhile, migrant workers are often deported promptly without enough time or opportunity to access to any labour protection mechanism available under labour laws.

· The current Labour Court system does not provide qualified interpreters to assist migrant workers, denying them a fair chance to a fair trial when accused of violations of the labour law.

4. Policy and Nationality Verification Process for Migrant Workers.

· Current, there is no clear long-term policy on migrant workers and no Master Plan for dealing with the issue. Whatever policy being implemented now is not very relevant to the influx of migrant workers from neighbouring countries.

· Policies adopted and implemented so far by the Government still lack a dimension on labour rights protection for migrant workers, because greater emphasis is placed on issued of national security and the demand for cheap migrant labour, resulting in an obvious lack of well-defined, properly formulated guidelines for effective labour protection. Such practical guidelines have never materialized.

· At the policy level, there has been no serious attempt to legalize migrant workers by having efficient mechanism to verify their nationality or country of origin, etc. Migrant workers, particularly from Myanmar, face rather complicated problems, with various minority groups waging independence struggles. Political factors and contradictions have contributed to the complexity of the issue.

· Another clear drawback is the fact that policies affecting migrant workers have been formulated and adopted without adequate participation from all concerned groups and organizations, genuinely representing the voices of migrant workers as well as Thai workers.

5. Occupational Health and Safety

· From the start, most migrant workers have been hired to work in the most oppressive and hazardous conditions, resulting in increasing cases of undocumented or unreported injuries, deaths and chronic health conditions.

6. Housing and Accommodation

· A pressing problem faced by migrant workers is the need for adequate housing and accommodation. Migrant workers do not have real choices of work to begin with, and they inevitably end up in substandard living quarters. In some cases, National Security officials have viewed this situation as a question of policy, where workers are to be confined to the compound of their workplace, making the situation worse because their movements are restricted under the strict control, or at the mercy, of their employer. It creates more pressure on migrant workers, making particularly young female migrant workers vulnerable as targets for sexual abuse or physical violence.

Recommendations on “Registration of Migrant Workers”.

1. Any policy on the registration of migrant workers must be relevant to the actual situation and conditions where they work and live. Thus, it is recommended that registration should be open throughout the year, to be responsive to changes of employment and workplace, and the increasing demand for migrant workers.

2. Concerned government agencies, i.e., Employment Offices under the the Ministry of Labour, should serve as a go-between between employers and employees (in the form of Recruitment Centres for Migrant Workers). Under this arrangement, migrant workers can register directly with the Employment Office and proper employment contracts can be negotiated and concluded at the Employment Offices. This proposal is intended to fill the gap (or loophole) where employers are currently required to take employees to report and to register legally. Under these circumstances, migrant workers are at the mercy of the employers, depending on them to take them to report, and register. They had no choice but to comply with whatever their employers say and do.

Once employers manage to avoid registration, migrant workers then become virtually a piece of property. This proposed new system can also do away with the lucrative system of labour recruitment agents, a deep-rooted corrupt practice in the local labour market, where migrant workers are especially easy victims.

3. Abolition of the guarantee or collateral system is intended to undermine the bargaining position of migrant workers, their access to labour protection mechanisms and their human dignity, simply because it grants employers a discretionary controlling power over migrant workers, rendering them powerless subjects under the complete control of the employer.

4. The expenses incurred in applying for a working permit shall be revised so that employers shall be responsible for them, thus doing away with the prevalent unfair deductions from the wages of migrant workers.

5. Any relevant documents or materials produced for dissemination among migrant workers should be in foreign languages, to ensure that they can properly and accurately understand the content and the requirements for applying for work permits or for proper registration. In addition, qualified interpreters/translators shall be arranged to provide migrant workers necessary consultation or adequate assistance.

Recommendations on Hiring Practices and Processes and Welfare/Fringe Benefits

1. There must be efficient labour protection mechanisms in accordance with labour laws, to which migrant workers can have easy access, i.e., production and distribution of a Handbook on Labour Rights and Access to Complaint Mechanisms, and assignment of qualified interpreters/translators for migrant workers to the Office of Labour Protection.

2. Genuine efforts must be made to facilitate the participation of all concerned parties to safeguard and protect labour rights, including representatives of workers’ communities, migrant workers, labour-related NGOs and government agencies. One proposal may take the form of volunteers recruited to promote and safeguard labour rights in target areas or communities.

3. Clearly defined punitive measures must be introduced and enforced against the prevalent practice of employers seizing or confiscating the ID cards of migrant workers as collateral or guarantee.

4. There must be a new social security system appropriate for providing due protection for migrant workers.

5. The current Labour Relations Act should be amended to allow migrant workers to organize legally and form their own labour unions.

6. Migrant workers should be permitted to change employers if there is justifiable cause. If they are unjustly dismissed, they should be given a minimum period of one (1) month to seek new employment or a new employer, based on the current actual labour situation.

Recommendations on Labour Rights Protection Procedures and the Justice System

1. There should be appropriate mechanisms for migrant workers to file formal complaints or to voice grievances as part and parcel of safeguarding the rights of migrant workers under labour laws. For example, qualified interpreters/translators must be provided throughout complaint procedures, starting from filing a formal complaint to proceedings in labour courts. In addition, translated materials shall be made available to migrant workers to foster accurate and adequate understanding of processes and procedures. Once a complaint is filed, there must also be an effective mechanism to protect workers, so that they are not subject to untoward harassment or unfair dismissal during the complaint process.

2. In labour disputes and dispute-related dismissals or termination of employment, migrant workers should be given temporary permission to stay in the country pending a labour dispute ruling. Also when seeking a new employer, migrant workers should be granted adequate time to comply with the required complaint procedures as well as labour protection mechanisms.

3. A prompt and systematic investigation or review of any case of possible deportation of migrant workers shall be introduced and put into practice. A migrant worker should be able to provide facts and figures on pending wages, compensation or any benefit due to them or information on other outstanding matters. This mechanism shall be designed and implemented to prevent any untoward practice of avoiding payment due to migrant workers.

Recommendations on Policy

1. A long-term Master Plan shall be formulated and introduced by soliciting meaningful participation from all concerned quarters, to establish a set of clear guidelines for a long-term view of the issues.

2. There must be clearly defined policies and practices designed to provide protection for migrant workers, as a platform to generate concrete and effective labour protection.

3. Procedures to verify the identity and nationality of migrant workers, especially those from Myanmar, with due consideration for all the factors involved, i.e., the political situation and conditions in the country of origin, etc, should be subject to a prompt and systematic review the devise the most appropriate ways and means to address the issue.

4. To ensure that the certification of the status of migrant workers is based properly on international agreements allowing migrant workers to work legally in the country, a specially mandated Working Group should be established with fair representation from migrant workers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia, the Thai labour movement, labour-related organizations and migrant worker support groups, and government agencies. An effective proposal for verifying the nationality of migrant workers and endorsing their legal status should be formulated.

5. Serious and systematic attempts shall be made to generate meaningful participation by labour representatives, labour organizations and other concerned parties in formulating policy at all levels, i.e., Thai trade unionists, migrant worker representatives, working actively together as an authorized or mandated Committee dealing with migrant workers at all levels. This is to ensure that any policy adopted would reflect various perspectives and be most relevant to the real situations.

6. The government shall promptly revoke the Cabinet Resolution adopted on August B.E. 2542 (1999) on the repatriation or deportation of migrant woman workers to their countries of origin. In the case of pregnant migrant workers, such inhumane treatment clearly constitutes a violation of workers’ rights and discrimination due to their pregnancy.

Recommendations on Standard Practices for Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) at the Workplace

For over 2 decades, Thailand has raised concerns about high risk, unhealthy and hazardous working conditions. It is now time for Thailand to get serious in addressing these problems. OHS practice needs to be upgraded and standards raised, while competent government agencies shall demonstrate their political commitment by facilitating conditions to give the Thai labour movement and migrant workers the opportunities and fora for exchange of ideas and concerns, aiming at raising the standards and practice of OHS in the workplace.

Recommendation on the Rights to Adequate Accommodations

In principle, appropriate living quarters or adequate accommodation must be arranged or provided for migrant workers, especially in areas benefiting from the economic and social development to which migrant labour contributes both directly and indirectly. Measures must be initiated and taken to ensure that are adequate accommodation is arranged for migrant workers in their communities.

Recommendation on the Right to Work of Refugees.

Currently, many refugees from Shan State in Burma are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance from concerned organizations and agencies, both local and international. The pressing issue is that they are being targeted for involuntary repatriation, to face cruel treatment from the military junta. The immediate point of concern is that Shan refugees, especially women, should on humanitarian grounds be allowed to work in Thailand for their survival.

Right to collective bargaining for migrant workers

Thailand should respect, promote, and realize fundamental principles and rights at work; namely freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to organize and bargain collectively by amending LRA 1975 to allow non-Thai workers to form trade unions and serve as committee or sub-committee members of trade unions.

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