Posts from the ‘Labor’ Category
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.”
In early February, Department of Employment (DOE) director Prawit Kiengphon authorized the return of Thai workers to Libya. More than 10,000 Thai refinery and construction workers were evacuated from the North African nation in March 2011 after an uprising broke out which resulted in the overthrow of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime. As thousands of Thais are mobilized for employment in Libya, it is time to consider whether the state’s labor export program sufficiently represents the interests of Thai transnational migrant workers. Is it truly safe for Thais to be deployed to Libya? And should the state be doing more to protect the financial interests of its migrant citizens?
Profits come with mortal risks
The Thai state has been promoting the overseas employment of Thais, most of whom are drawn from the country’s poorest and least developed Northeastern region, for more than three and a half decades. It competes with more than a dozen Southeast and South Asian states for lucrative employment positions in overseas labor markets.
In January 2012, Sri Lanka permitted its migrant citizens to return to Libya. In response, Mr. Prawit asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to hastily verify that conditions in Libya are safe before Thai jobs were lost to Sri Lankan workers. In his February announcement, Mr. Prawit made no reference to Sri Lanka. Instead, he simply stated that the Thai Embassy in Libya had determined that conditions had returned to a state of normalcy.
However, the DOE’s responsibility for verifying the safety of destination countries is potentially comprised by its duty to promote overseas labor migration. A new Ministry of Labor policy charges the DOE with increasing the number of Thais employed overseas by 10% in 2012 to a total of 600,000 workers. This goal would be farther from reach if the Libyan labor market was lost. Prior to last year’s uprising, Libya ranked as the sixth most common destination of the more than four dozen countries which receive Thai labor.
A recent Amnesty International report which depicted Libya as a troubled nation where “lawlessness” prevails stands in stark contrast to the Thai Embassy’s assessment of normalcy. The report details the continued existence of “hundreds of large militias” that are “largely out of control… their actions threatening to destabilize Libya”. In addition, it documents how “frequent armed clashes between different militia groups” have resulted in the death and injuries of “uninvolved bystanders”.
It is not only Amnesty’s report that casts doubt on the stability of the situation in Libya. The DOE’s new regulations which apply to Thai employment agencies supplying Libyan employers indicate that the DOE is concerned that Thai migrants may be affected by future unrest. Now, employment agencies must ensure that migrants sent to Libya are protected with life insurance policies. In addition, agencies must submit evacuation plans and written assurances that they will shoulder the costs of any future evacuations.
The new regulations ensure that the Thai government will not have to foot the bill for a costly evacuation as it did following the 2011 uprising. Yet while the regulations mitigate the financial risks that the Thai state incurs in the export of labor to Libya, they do nothing to lessen the financial risks assumed by Thai migrants. As became apparent when Thai workers returned unexpectedly from Libya last year, these risks for migrants are substantial.
Paying the price for labor export
Unfortunately, employment agencies generally charge Thai job-seekers under the table service fees in excess of the government stipulated limit. According to Mr. Daeng Phiwdam, an Udon Thani native who has worked in Libya for most of the past fifteen years, first-time migrants to Libya are charged approximately 90,000 baht in agency fees which they typically pay with money borrowed at high interest rates. Mr. Daeng estimates that it takes one and a half to two years for most migrants to recover their agency fees with their 10,000 baht per month Libyan salaries.
When migrants are forced to return home prematurely, they often come home saddled with debts that are difficult to recover in the domestic labor market. According to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, only 40 of nearly 10,000 Thai workers in Libya chose not to return home when the uprising broke out in February 2011. However, Mr. Daeng explained that the prospect of returning without money to pay an agency debt is often more daunting than that of remaining in a war-ravaged country. “If you stay you die, if you go home you also die because you are in debt and there is no way of recovering it,” said Mr. Daeng.
A second problem resulting from last year’s evacuation is that many migrants returned to Thailand with outstanding salary claims. Given that it is not uncommon for migrant workers in Libya to be paid once every three months, the amounts owed to many migrants were not insignificant. According to DOE statistics, nearly one year after the workers returned, roughly a quarter still have unresolved salary issues with their Libyan employers.
Returned migrants, especially those with outstanding employment agency debt, are likely anxious to resume work in Libya. Now the DOE has given them the green light to take up residence in the still-troubled African nation. The DOE has implemented measures to reduce the financial burden that it will incur in the event of future unrest in Libya. It should also do the same for migrants. The DOE should implement regulations which require employment agencies to refund most of workers’ agency fees if they are prematurely returned to Thailand through no fault of their own. In addition, the DOE should more aggressively pursue salary claims on behalf of Thai migrant workers. It should also consider implementing regulations which require Libyan employers to pay Thai migrants on a bi-weekly or a monthly basis. Finally, it is high time for the Thai state to reconsider whether its labor export program is truly in the best interests of its citizens. When unemployment is less than one percent domestically, why is the Thai state concerned about losing employment positions in a war-ravaged nation? The DOE’s efforts would be better directed toward creating more highly remunerative employment positions at home.