UDON THANI – Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labor announced plans to increase the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% to more than 600,000 workers. In addition to maintaining existing markets for Thai labor (in countries such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei) and pursuing new markets (including Finland, New Zealand and South Africa), the Ministry hopes to encourage a renewed demand for Thai construction workers in the Middle East. But in some of Thailand’s first labor-sending communities, the effects of migrant labor programs have settled in and enthusiasm for working abroad has all but dried up.
Baan Na Tha Kai, situated some 14 kilometers outside of Udon Thani, is one such Thai community that began to send many men to work in the Middle East more than 35 years ago. There is little in Baan Na Tha Kai to signify the community’s rather exceptional history. Like most Northeastern villages, Baan Na Tha Kai is comprised of clusters of traditional wooden stilt houses, many of which have been modified with concrete to resemble conventional two-story homes. Yet, just beyond the houses, paddy land adjoins a military base through a battered, chain-link fence.
The base is one of seven which housed American Air Force units during the Vietnam War. The origin of many of the bombing missions which decimated Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the base provided dollars and jobs for the villagers of Baan Na Tha Kai who previously had little opportunity to work off of their rice fields.
“Thirty, forty years ago, people were not working in Bangkok [like today]”, a retired 64-year-old former base worker and migrant to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel recalled. “There was mostly farming. Some people worked in sawmills or in construction in Nong Khai, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Then the Americans came. People who had left the community came back to work and lots of people from other places came in.”
Having grown accustomed to the steady source of income that service, security, and manual labor jobs on the base provided for more than a decade, villagers suffered when the Americans suddenly withdrew in 1976. Even so, when a former American soldier tried to recruit labor for multinational construction and resource extraction companies in the Middle East, he found few takers. “We were scared,” the former base worker explained. “We didn’t know where these places were or what they would do to us there.”
The exception, many villagers recalled, was the late Noy Rawsiklao. According to village lore, Noy’s heavy debts rendered him receptive to the American’s proposal. When Noy returned home flush with money the following year, Baan Na Tha Kai took notice. It is unclear whether Noy spoke of the desert heat, the lack of amenities and women, the prohibitions on alcohol, or the exploitative working conditions about which other returned migrants would later complain. When villagers recall Noy and his triumphant 1977 return, they speak only of how rich he appeared. A 55-year-old former migrant explained, “Noy told us, ‘Next time someone invites you to go to Saudi Arabia, you go.’”
By and large, the men of Baan Na Tha Kai took Noy’s advice to heart. Villagers recalled that at the height of the Middle Eastern migration craze in the 1980s, men from nearly every household in three of the four villages that comprise Baan Na Tha Kai were working abroad. But now, as the government plans to rebuild the labor market for Thais in the Middle East, it will likely need to seek labor from other areas of Thailand.
In the mid-2000s, overseas migration began to fall out of favor in Baan Na Tha Kai. A village official estimates that, today, at most 30 people from Baan Na Tha Kai’s approximately 1000 families are working abroad.
“The trucks haven’t even run through here for the past two years,” a shopkeeper confided, referring to the employment agents who used to disrupt the quiet afternoon air with recorded loudspeaker messages about riches to be earned in foreign lands.
Villagers suggest that there is one main reason that migration has recently become so unpopular: Employment agencies have significantly raised their fees for arranging migration. “The word has gotten out,” explained the shopkeeper. “People pay well over 100,000 baht to go to Taiwan. Then in two years in Taiwan they only make [around the same amount]…It’s like you worked for free.”
Expenses required for migration have historically created a high barrier to success. An old Thai aphorism describes the plight of migrants whose earnings fall short of their spendings: “On going, you lose your rice field; on coming back, you lose your wife.” Many migrants are forced to mortgage their family’s land in order to pay the employment agencies’ exorbitant fees. And, while they are away, their marriages can sometimes fall apart. Upon return, the migrants who have been wronged by their foreign employers or have encountered other financial hardships rarely have the funds to buy back their land or the ability to win back their wives. Villagers estimate that those whose migration cost them their homes and families amounted to under 20% of migrants.
“Some of them literally went crazy upon return”, a successful migrant said, explaining the fate of the less fortunate. “But most would go down to Bangkok to work in construction after losing their rice land [and homes].” Construction work often offers on-site housing for laborers.
And, as employment agencies’ fees have steadily increased, the threat of returning home without savings today is far greater than it was three decades ago.
At the same time, economic opportunity is beginning to present itself at home, further discouraging interest in working abroad. “Now you can make 200 to 300 baht a day [in construction in Thailand], 500 to 600 if you have skills,” said the shopkeeper, pointing to construction work being performed on the nearby railroad. More than that, said another former migrant, “If you have 100,000 baht [to pay for agency fees], it would be better to start a business in Thailand.”