BANGKOK – Thailand’s military leaders are scrambling to stem an exodus of foreign workers that is hurting the already faltering economy and exposing pitfalls in the junta’s rule by diktat.
Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have fled after the generals who seized power on May 22 in Bangkok launched a crackdown on illegal employment – and then sought to woo some leavers back.
The stampede has laid bare tensions between Thailand’s reliance on foreign labour – some of it illicit – and the coup leaders’ agenda of stoking nationalism and clamping down on alleged corruption and lawlessness.
“The junta should be taking into account the economic dimension of the situation,” said one rights activist, who asked not to be named because of the generals’ prohibition on criticism. “When you create fear and pressure, you don’t know what the result will be.”
Several hundred thousand of the estimated 2m-3m registered and unregistered migrant workers have left Thailand because of the official crackdown, said Human Rights Watch, the New York-based campaign group.
Thai security forces and immigration officials have been carrying out spot checks and arresting alleged illegal workers, although the military has denied widely spread rumours that it has attacked foreign labourers or plans to use violence.
More than 200,000 of those have left have gone to Cambodia, where there have been chaotic scenes as truckloads of people have arrived with their barest possessions at the Thai border district of Aranyaprathet. Other foreign workers have gone underground in Thailand, because they don’t have visas or work permits.
Aung, a 24-year old Myanmar national who works illegally as a shrimp peeler in the Thai coastal town of Mahachai, said he was hiding in his room because some of his friends had already been arrested. He couldn’t leave Thailand because he needed to work to pay off $400 he owed agents who brought him to the country illegally a few months ago.
“I don’t have documents and, with the military crackdown, I have to worry about my situation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s safe for me.”
Business people says the outflow is hitting industries ranging from construction to fruit-picking, where migrants from poorer surrounding countries do low-paid work many Thais consider too dirty, difficult or dangerous.
Chookiat Ophaswongse, honorary president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, said foreign workers accounting for as much as 70 per cent of manpower in areas such as grain warehousing, stevedoring and milling had left since the junta took over.
“They were very panicked,” he said. “Shipments are now delayed and a lot of damage has been done.”
The downing of tools comes at an awkward time for the junta, as it attempts to revive an economy dragged down by six months of street protests against the ousted government. Thailand is also facing increasing scrutiny over its record on workers’ rights: it was the only country in the world to vote last week against an international pact to halt forced labour, while it is desperately trying to avoid being ranked in the bottom tier of a US government annual human trafficking report due out on Friday.
Thailand’s generals must also deal with fears among some Cambodians that they face hostility stemming in part from a bitter long-running border dispute between the two countries. Other Cambodians are nervous about the impact of Phnom Penh’s warm relationship with Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister and arch-enemy of a Bangkok political establishment that has the military at its heart.
The junta denies discrimination against any group and says all it wants to do is enforce the law. Officials say the government is now looking at measures to rebuild confidence and bring legal immigrants back to Thailand by fast-tracking documents for them to re-enter.
“The whole of Thailand understands the important of these migrant workers and everyone is trying to facilitate these people staying,” one official said. “We would be in trouble if they all leave.” – By Michael Peel in Bangkok