Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has chosen to make his first foreign trip as the country’s leader to Myanmar — for a good reason. Sharing more than 2,000 kilometres of border, the two countries’ economic interests are closely intertwined. With Myanmar’s rich natural resources and determination to open its economy, Thailand can certainly benefit through strong bilateral ties.
While Gen Prayut tries to cement trade and investment ties during his visit, the thorny labour rights and human trafficking issues between the two countries stick out like a sore thumb. Ignoring them will punish the people at the lowest rungs of society, further tarnish the reputation of both countries, and undermine their long-term economic growth.
Gen Prayut’s Myanmar visit is taking place amid the Koh Tao murder controversy; amid allegations over police torture, and the possibility of using innocent people as scapegoats. Although the general vowed to explain the murder probe to Myanmar authorities to set the record straight, it does not mean Myanmar will buy it. This can hurt ties.
The handling of the investigation and the targeting of migrants as suspects raises questions over legal abuse and ethnic prejudice. It is certainly not an isolated incident; migrant workers face police extortion and false allegations on a daily basis.
The fact that both Koh Tao murder suspects are undocumented workers who paid human traffickers to come to Thailand underscores the junta’s anti-trafficking policy failure. Employers defy the law and remain unpunished while traffickers — in collusion with corrupt officials from both sides of the border — continue to benefit from the modern slave trade.
While businessmen are enthusiastic about the special economic zone along the Thai-Myanmar border, they are silent over the need to improve migrant labour rights and welfare. Migrant workers are actually entitled to equal labour rights protection here. But there is still a yawning gap between reality and the law.
It is why the Migrant Workers Right Network has called on Gen Prayut and President Thein Sein to redress the problems. Their demands include better labour rights protection, less registration red tape, punishments for fraudulent brokers and corrupt officials, and legal deportation that does not put the workers back into the hands of trafficking rackets.
The workers’ rights group also calls on the Myanmar government to assign embassy staff in Bangkok to protect Myanmar workers’ rights and welfare. With an estimated 3-4 million migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand, it is astonishing staff members are still not in place.
While Myanmar must not fail in its duty to protect its citizens, Thailand must understand that respecting and according migrant labour rights is good for its business.
Labour abuse in the fishing industry has already subjected the country to trade boycotts from the European Union and the United States. With more employment opportunities in Myanmar as well as in other countries in the region as the Asean Economic Community nears, Thailand’s economy will seriously suffer should Myanmar workers head home or elsewhere.
Change must start from effecting year-round registration instead of imposing deadlines which make workers vulnerable to extortion. Work rules must change to allow workers to switch jobs and receive training so they can enter the skilled workforce, improve their income, and contribute more to the local economy. Access to health care services must be ensured. The current policy to limit migrant workers’ freedom of movement must stop.
Amid the country’s serious labour shortage, we can continue to benefit from human resources from Myanmar if we respect their human rights.
Source: Bangkok Post