Cambodian migrant workers carry their belongings as they walk to cross the border at Aranyaprathet in Sa Kaew June 15, 2014. The military's ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) insists Cambodians are leaving of their own accord and said 60,000 had crossed the border as of Saturday. 
 
© 2014 Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

(New York) – The Thai government should halt enforcement of a new migrant workers’ law that imposes excessive criminal penalties and has caused thousands of migrant workers to flee Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the government enacted the Decree Concerning the Management of Foreign Workers’ Employment on June 23, 2017, tens of thousands of registered and unregistered migrant workers from Cambodia, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam have fled Thailand, fearing arrest and harsh punishment. The new law imposes disproportionate criminal penalties on migrants who work without a permit, mandating up to five years in prison and fines between 2,000 to 100,000 baht (US$60 to US$2,935).

“Threatening unregistered migrant workers with long prison terms and large fines will just make it easier for corrupt officials and unscrupulous employers to abuse and exploit them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thailand needs laws that protect the rights of migrant workers—not that instill fear and set off mass flight.”

The decree, which the government announced with little notice, puts migrant workers and employers in limbo and has prompted thousands of migrant workers and their families to flee Thailand. Employers face hefty fines of 400,000 to 800,000 baht ($11,740 to $23,480) for each undocumented migrant worker they hire, which has led some to encourage their migrant workers to depart. Even if their workers have authorization, the employers could still be fined 400,000 baht ($11,740) per worker and the worker 100,000-baht ($ 2,935) if the job is not the same as registered at the Department of Employment.

On July 4, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, facing strong employer opposition to the law and the flight of migrant workers, used his executive authority to delay enforcement of four articles (elaborating punishments) for 180 days for possible revisions. However, the military junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly enacted the remaining articles by a 177 to 0 vote (with 11 abstentions) on July 6.

Threatening unregistered migrant workers with long prison terms and large fines will just make it easier for corrupt officials and unscrupulous employers to abuse and exploit them.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Prime Minister Prayut claimed the new law is necessary because of a huge number of unregistered migrant workers—approximately three million—in Thailand, and that the government needs tougher measures to respond to international concerns about trafficking. He cited Thailand’s low ranking in the 2017 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Abuses of migrant workers in Thailand have been extensively documented by Human Rights Watch and others, including in the report “From the Tiger to the Crocodile: Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand.” Human Rights Watch found that abuses against migrant workers include assaults and killings by government security forces and private individuals, extensive use of torture and ill-treatment in detention, sexual abuse, widespread labor rights abuses, and pervasive extortion. Many employers still confiscate migrant workers' passports and work permits. Meanwhile, those filing grievances have often faced retaliation from police, officials, and employers.

The new law addresses only one of the major problems identified by Human Rights Watch: that of systematic confiscation of workers’ identification documents by employers seeking to prevent them from changing employers or leaving. The new law criminalizes the seizure of “worker permits and other important documents” of migrant workers and imposes punishments of up to 6 months in prison and fines up to 100,000 baht ($2,935).

A Myanmar migrant worker rests outside his house near a wholesale market for shrimp and other seafood in Mahachai, in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand, July 4, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Because of the complexity of the migrant worker registration process and lack of Thai government capacity in migrant workers’ languages, migrant workers have long had to pay high fees to brokers to coordinate with labor management authorities on both sides of the border. The annual registration period is also unreasonably short, leaving migrant workers who cannot register in time vulnerable to arrest or extortion by law enforcement officials.

Migrant workers remain barred from changing jobs and employers without authorization, and an unreasonably short period of 15 days is provided to change employers where authorization is provided. Changing employers without permission exposes workers to arrest, detention, fines, and deportation. Restricting workers’ ability to change employers makes them more vulnerable to labor rights’ violations. Another provision of the law sets out that the interior minister may officially designate areas where migrant workers would be allowed to live, threatening the right to freedom of movement.

The new law also fails to address Thailand’s violation of migrant workers’ right to freedom of association, including the right to organize and lead a labor union. The 1975 Labor Relations Act prohibits migrants from officially registering a union with Thai authorities (which is necessary for legal status) or serving as a union committee member, which choose union leaders.

To end the flight of migrant workers from Thailand, the Thai government should promptly adopt measures to protect migrant workers’ rights. The government should end restrictions on documented migrant workers changing employers, rescind regulations that violate migrant workers’ right to freedom of movement, and amend the Labor Relations Act to permit migrant workers to form trade unions and collectively bargain.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government to set up a national-level government complaints body that will impartially and expeditiously investigate abuses of migrant workers’ rights; thoroughly investigate and prosecute government officials, especially police, who extort and abuse migrant workers and their families; and revamp migrant registration procedures that are unnecessarily bureaucratic, complicated and expensive.

“The lives of migrant workers in Thailand are frequently unsafe and uncertain,” Adams said. “The government’s discriminatory law only exacerbates that. Instead of putting forward new regulations that violate migrant workers’ rights, it is time to get serious about prosecuting those who abuse migrant workers.”