More than a hundred thousand migrant workers in Thailand are set to benefit from an extension of their expiring work permits for another two years, the Thai labour ministry announced this week.
But labour rights campaigners said the cost of the extension could fuel debt bondage and worker exploitation.
The labour ministry said a total of about 130,000 migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who had entered the country under bilateral labour agreements and whose permits expired from this month through December 2021 would be eligible.
Thailand’s labour minister Suchat Chomklin said the measure is set “in order to lower the spread of coronavirus, solve the labour shortage and also protect the rights of migrant workers who come to Thailand legally”.
Thailand has about 2.8 million registered migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, but the United Nations estimates that 2 million more work informally across the country in sectors including fishing, construction and agriculture.
Migrants who wish to extend their permits will have to undergo health checks and pay a fee of 1,900 baht (US$63), causing concern among campaigners who said the cost could be inflated by employers and labour brokers and drive workers deeper into debt.
Across Southeast Asia, migrants must pay a variety of fees to recruiters and bosses to secure jobs abroad, trapping many in exploitative workplaces as they struggle to clear their debts.
“There will be lots of profiteering … by brokers, by employers,” said Khun Tharo, a program director at Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, a Cambodian non-profit.
“Thailand needs migrant workers to keep its economy running – they should make the process free,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Debt bondage is one of the world’s most prevalent forms of modern slavery, affecting an estimated 610,000 people in Thailand, according to the rights group Walk Free Foundation.
At least 90,000 migrant workers scrambled to leave Thailand when its land borders were closed in March to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The Southeast Asian nation has so far recorded 60 deaths related to COVID-19 among at least 3,850 infections. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)