BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - Aye, an undocumented Burmese worker, wanted to legalise her stay in Thailand, so she contacted a broker who offered to get her Burmese passport and Thai work permit for a 12,000 baht ($409) fee - more than a month’s wage and three times the cost if she were to do it herself.
“I asked why it was so expensive, and the broker said, ‘There are lots of others involved. I only get a share’,” Aye, which is not her real name, told TrustLaw.
“My only concern was to get a passport, so I didn’t ask many questions,” she said, adding that her friends had done it the same way.
That was two months ago. With the newly-extended April 13 deadline looming, Aye was not entirely sure if he had run off with her money. She does not have a passport and could be deported anytime if a policeman hears her Burmese accent and demands her papers.
In an effort to legalise its migrant labourers, Thailand in 2009 set up a National Verification (NV) registration process, but over the years, the convoluted paperwork required spawned an exploitative industry of middlemen who cut through the red tape - at an exorbitant cost.
“With the broker system, the cost becomes 15,000 baht ($511)to 25,000 baht ($853), instead of 3,000 ($102) to 5,000 baht ($170),” said Sawit Kaewvarn, secretary-general of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC).
“There’s corruption from brokers and government officials… And there’s no transparency to the process.”
HELPING OR HURTING MIGRANTS?
Thailand hosts an estimated 1.3 to 2 million undocumented migrant workers, who perform the country’s dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs. They are often underpaid and abused.
The NV process, in theory, should benefit both employees and employers: Workers receive legal protection, and employers will no longer run foul of the law.
In reality, though, workers like Aye are being squeezed for the little money they earn by brokers who collude with government officials and employers, activists say.
“We really welcome the NV process, but what really disappoints us is that instead of thousands of baht, the migrant workers are having to pay tens of thousands of baht,” said Aung Kyaw, president of the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN).
A breakdown of costs show the process should not cost more than 3,550 baht ($121) - with 550 baht going to the Burmese government, 500 baht to the Thai government, 600 baht for a medical check-up and 1,900 baht for a one-year work permit.
The brokers’ high costs deterred more than 1 million workers from registering despite the Thai government’s plan to deport those who failed to register before the deadline, SERC and MWRN said.
DEADLINES FURTHER EXPLOITATION
The current registration process was established after a previous one ended in December. It was supposed to be more transparent following activists’ complaints of corruption and overcharging during the earlier process.
Yet things remained the same. It is almost impossible for a migrant worker to get the paperwork without brokers, who push up the prices.
“We don’t understand why both authorities aren’t helping the workers who’ve made significant contributions to their economies,” Aung Kyaw said.
The majority of migrant workers in Thailand are from Myanmar. The rest are from Cambodia and Laos, with a few also from Vietnam and China. They work primarily in the agriculture, fishing and construction industries.
The NV deadline had originally been set at March 19, but was extended to March 31, and then again to April 13, in order to get more workers registered, but some activists say deadlines should be done away with altogether.
“Every time the government announces a deadline and say (the workers) will be deported if they don’t register by then, it’s an opportunity for brokers to exploit the workers,” said SERC’s Sawit.
“The government has to accept that for Thailand’s economy (to prosper), we cannot ignore migrant workers. We need them for heavy work, dirty work, low-skilled work and risky work.”
As for Aye, who already paid 2,000 of her 12,000 baht broker’s fee, she is just waiting and hoping he comes through.
“If the broker didn’t submitted my papers yet, he should say it, because then I can plan something else. I just want to get a passport and work permit,” she said. “The broker has not picked up his phone for days. I’m really worried.”