Up to 80,000 migrant workers have now left Thailand

Myanmar workers wait before leaving Thailand at Mae Sot Immigration office in Tak province Thailand, Monday, July 3, 2017. Fearful that Thailand's new labor rules will get them into trouble, tens of thousands of migrant workers are returning to neighboring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, causing hardship to themselves and their Thai employers. (AP Photo/Chiravuth Rungjamratratsami)

New Thai labour rules send migrant workers packing for home.

Fearful that Thailand’s new labour rules will get them into trouble, tens of thousands of migrant workers are returning to neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, causing hardship to themselves and their Thai employers.

Labour regulations that took effect June 23 could give foreign workers without proper permits up to five years in prison, while their employers could face fines of up to 800,000 baht ($23,500).

Read – Thailand forced to reverse labor law as workers pour out of the country

It was a massive own goal for the Thai military government as officials and workers’ advocates estimated Monday that roughly 30,000 workers have returned home since the rules took effect.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, under pressure from industries employing the migrants, says he’ll institute a 120-day extension of the deadline for worker registration.

Thailand has about 2.6 million foreign workers, mostly from its poorer neighbours Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Half are estimated to be working illegally. Many work in low-paying or dangerous jobs that Thais are reluctant to take, in fields such as construction, farming and fishing.

Thailand’s Labor Rights Promotion Network, a migrant rights advocate group, estimates that more than 30,000 workers have gone back home and that the number will keep increasing if the government does not come out with measures to reassure workers of their rights and safety.

Police Col. Man Ratanaprateep, based in the northern Thai province of Tak, which borders on Myanmar, said that as of Monday, more than 23,000 workers had crossed back to Myanmar at the province’s Mae Sot checkpoint alone, but many more have gone back at unofficial crossings.

But those are only the official figures. In fact the regulations have caused the loss of between 40,000 and 80,000 migrant workers from the construction industry, according to Suwat Liptapanlop, president of Thai Contractors Association. He did not say how many workers left on their own, or how many were pushed out by nervous employers.

“Many migrants are fleeing Thailand voluntarily at a high cost; some employers cover costs, but many are also unceremoniously fired without compensation,” said Andy Hall, a longtime human rights worker with extensive experience with migrant workers.

“Thailand’s government is completely irresponsible, treating these low-skilled workers with high value to its economy like dispensable second-class citizens who don’t deserve basic treatment in accordance with international human rights standards,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Pravit Wongsuwan told reporters that the government is likely to invoke Article 44 to extend the registration deadline. Article 44 of the constitution imposed by the military after it seized power in May 2014 gives the prime minister the authority to issue orders overriding any other branch of government to promote public order and unity. – AP

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