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Employers need to resolve migrant mess

An estimated 2 million migrants from Myanmar working across Thailand remain anxious to an irrational deadline imposed on permission to work here. The two countries agreed in 2003 that these workers could remain in Thailand only for 4 years before returning home for at least 3 years prior to any possible return.
 
This limit on migrant’s stay in Thailand was imposed on ‘legal’ workers who, since 2009, completed a Nationality Verification regularisation process (NV). Wound up in late 2013, NV resulted in issuance by Myanmar of 2 million ‘temporary’ passports but was dogged by lack of transparency, corrupt officials, unregulated agents and high costs. Employers and workers could not navigate the process themselves without influential agents opening doors to those who paid and firmly blocking those who didn’t.
 
Since June 2013, months before political unrest began in Thailand, Myanmar workers’ 4 year stay permission following NV started to expire. But both the Myanmar and Thai governments remained silent. There were no bilateral discussions and no official policy announcements stating either that workers completing 4 years had to leave Thailand or risk arrest and deportation, or instead that they could stay. 
 
In August, the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) exposed the policy vacuum and argued for revision of the 4 year stay limit which is irrational and unreasonable for migrants, employers and the Thai economy. But within months 100, 000 Myanmar workers’ stay permission had already expired.
 
By October, discussions had been held between Myanmar and Thailand. It became clear a lack of capacity, negative intentions, a taste for corruption nurtured by the previous NV process and bureaucracy were dictating policy discussions. The best interests of migrants struggling to survive and support their families were being ignored as each department concerned placed a stake on a right to benefit at workers expense.
 
Minutes of these meetings suggest officials agreed the 3 year return to Myanmar for workers completing their allowed stay in Thailand should be replaced with a single day return or even an immigration stamp at one stop centers in border areas. The need of employers and the economy had clearly been heard.   
 
But since that time, and without policy appearing, thousands of migrants were dismissed by employers, often without severance pay. Many employers didn’t want hassle of navigating confused visa renewal process whilst others, including major exporting companies, used confusion to lay off workers at times of low production. Some workers left Thailand prior to the visa expiry whilst others with expired visas faced extortion resulting from fines imposed by immigration on overstay.
 
More workers returned to Myanmar and came back to Thailand through unregulated but legal Myanmar recruitment agency led processes with a new ‘permanent’ passport at high cost. Another group discarded old passports and paid officials handsomely for new passports with new names issued at the previously open passport issuing centers in Thailand, thereby losing 4 years of accrued social security benefits.
 
But for most workers whose stay permission had expired, they became stuck in Thailand. As the deadline for leaving passed, they remained at risk of arrest, extortion or deportation. The 500 baht per day overstay fee has reached the 20, 000 baht limit for many of these workers already.
 
Better employers sheltered workers, not surprising given their importance in production processes and difficulty and expense in recruiting new migrant workers. Protection cards started appearing and bribes paid to officials. Employers were told to compile lists of overstayers and submit to local officials. 
 
By the end of 2013, political unrest set in throughout Thailand and the government stated plans for dealing with a policy vacuum could not proceed without a Cabinet. But 6 months had already passed and the situation should have been addressed a long time before this chaos and confusion could arise. It’s clear many officials and agents continue to use a lack of clarity on policy to plan profit making. Citing political unrest was never an acceptable excuse or reason. 
 
As this policy chaos dragged on, Myanmar officials then announced that a new and expensive ‘verification’ process was to be required whereby ‘permanent’ Myanmar passports would replace previously issued ‘temporary’ passports. Only workers with Myanmar ID cards and house registration could get new passports. Processes to acquire these documents for many (particularly countryside) workers who didn’t have them is slow. But with someone to bribe officials, it becomes quick and easy.
 
Myanmar’s decision to require the new identity verification processes has opened up a central role for unregulated Myanmar agencies in the policy confusion to assist workers remaining in Thailand to acquire ID cards and house registration in Myanmar. Myanmar’s claims to more of the profit from migration processes have been laid clear.
 
One frequent complaint regarding the previous NV process was that Thai officials and agents made more profit than their Myanmar counterparts as processes took place in and were dictated by Thailand. It’s clear Myanmar is now confidently staking its own claims to a share of the pie.
 
But by acknowledging lack of genuine verification in the previous NV process and requiring a completely new process, migrants find themselves with a worthless temporary passport for which they paid large amounts of money and a very bad feeling towards their government that is particularly hard to swallow.
 
Finally, 10 months after the first Myanmar workers began to face expiry of their stay permission, and with increased media and international interest in another Thailand migration policy crisis, the response from officials concerned is slowly falling into place, albeit mostly behind closed doors.
 
Thai officials are meeting to find ways to waive or reduce overstay charges for workers whose permission to stay expired so as to facilitate their legalisation. One stop service centers to process exit and entry stamps and other documents for workers still legal opened last week on the Thai/Myanmar border.
 
The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok has suddenly become central to a permanent passport issuing process distributing vague instructions sheets containing no official government stamp.
 
A handful of workers have picked up new permanent passports with assistance from well connected Myanmar recruitment agencies and Thai companies who navigated the complex costly process and are waiting resolution of the overstay policy prior to stamping workers in and out to become legal.   
 
The 4 year stay permission policy chaos has again exposed deep ingrained lack of capacity, absence of rule of law, systematic corruption and ruthless indifference of those concerned in government to develop a long term migration policy that equally benefits migrant workers, their employers and the economy. The Myanmar government has shown those who hoped for some fairness and protective measures from the rapidly changing administration that their hopes were ill placed.
 
The means for something good to come of this policy chaos is for Thai employers to now refuse to be complicit in another unregulated agency led and untransparent migration extortion process. These powerful actors, many labour intensive and exporting companies, are the only ones with power to stand up against government and protect their workers, life blood of their industries, from more abuse and advantage taking.
 
Meanwhile, it’s important the international community takes note of how a relatively simple extension of stay permission policy for millions of Myanmar migrants in Thailand has descended into an untransparent frenzy of profit making and abuse. This is not the way governments committed to addressing trafficking in persons behave. It’s the style of administrations that have yet to show any real commitment to change.    
 
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Andy Hall is the international affairs adviser to the Thailand-based State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation of Thailand (SERC) and Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN)