Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has said that he will discuss in the next cabinet meeting whether the government will offer temporary work permits to undocumented migrant workers to alleviate the spread of Covid-19.
While some are concerned that the policy may attract even more illegal immigrants and potential spreaders, an NGO suggests a 14-day quarantine period for new migrants.
Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha said on 24 December that the government may offer temporary work permits, also known as ‘pink cards’, to undocumented migrants currently working in Thailand. “Today there are a lot of activities. Is the previous registration enough? Today, all the businesses must say how much labour they want, so as to check and bring them into the system properly,” said Gen Prayut.
Gen Prayut softened his tone after facing criticism from the public over his earlier speech. On 22 December, he said on TV that “as regards the organized groups bringing illegal workers into the country, they must be prosecuted and utterly destroyed, whether they are state officials or other people involved, because in this outbreak, it was fund that most of those infected came from migrant workers.”
In the parliamentary session, Gen Prayut faced criticism from Viroj Lakkana-adisorn, a Move Forward MP, who said that such words may provoke employers to avoid prosecution by sending back undocumented workers. Without legal protection, health insurance, or social security for these workers, many are also concerned that a punitive approach may force migrant workers to evade deportation and become spreaders of Covid-19.
The ‘pink card’ initiative has come up in wake of the new Covid-19 outbreak, triggering concerns over the need to bring undocumented migrant workers into the system. On 19 December, 513 cases of infection were reported in Samut Sakhon, the majority of which are reportedly migrant workers. Three days later, the number of cases in the province was 1,063 out of the 5,716 cases nationwide.
However, some are concerned that the policy may bring even more illegal immigrants and Covid-19 spreaders into the country. Associate Professor Dr Kiriya Kulkolkarn from Thammasat University, in an interview with Thai PBS, said that while it is good to bring undocumented migrants into the system, the government should be tough on combating the organized groups who bring illegal workers into the country.
Cherdsak Wisutthikul, Deputy Director-General of the Department of Employment, also said that he agreed the government should bring back into the system the migrant workers who had been documented but lost their legal status due to mistakes and other factors. But other migrants who come here illegally may make use of the opportunity to get a work permit here. It may also attract potential Covid-19 spreaders from neighbouring countries to come to Thailand.
However, there is one NGO that says that strengthening borders does not mean more crackdowns, closures, and razor-wired barriers. Instead, the borders should remain open with 14-day state quarantine. This is according to the Migrant Working Group (MWG) in a seminar at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in mid-December. In order to do this, employers and the government should take care of expenses during quarantine.
“The real beneficiaries are the employers and the government. What we see is that the employee will benefit. I think they get only compensation. They get no profits, but people who make profits are the employers and the government. I would like to propose that the expenses during the 14-day quarantine period should be the responsibility of the employers and the government who should come to an agreement about who will pay and how much, so that we will have workers who come to support the economy safely,” said Chuwong Seangkong of the MWG.
According to an MWG estimate, there may be as many as 600,000 migrant workers in Thailand who were documented but lost their legal status due to businesses closing down and border shutdowns from August to October during the last outbreak. They may have been re-employed or remain unemployed.
NGOs have also been warning for years that there may be at least 2 million illegal migrant workers in Thailand due to the difficult registration procedure, leading to illegal border crossings, bribery, and human trafficking. According to the Labour Protection Network, less than 3 million out of the total 4-5 million migrant workers have been documented.