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Advocates call on Myanmar government to help undocumented workers in Thailand

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In light of a recent spate of arrests of undocumented Myanmar workers in Thailand, the Myanmar government should negotiate with its Thai counterpart to help workers return with a minimum of difficulty, according to U Htoo Chit, director of the Thailand-based Foundation for Education and Development, which helps migrants in Thailand.

“The arrest of undocumented workers has been increasing recently, so I want to call on the Myanmar government to negotiate with the Thai government to help Myanmar workers return with dignity,” he said.

Kawthaung officials, CSOs and residents welcoming migrant worker back to Myanmar on July 1. (photo: Htoo Chit)
The Thai military government issued a set of new labor regulations in June that, among other things, imposed stiff fines on undocumented workers and employers who hire them. The regulations set off a panic among workers as police and members of the military began arresting foreign workers, prompting many to flee. In response to the panicked departure of tens of thousands of workers, the Thai government delayed implementation of the law for 120 days.

“The Thai Government has notified departments that they are not to arrest foreign workers for now, but we’ve received reports that some Thai police are still arresting foreign workers under the new regulations. As soon as the workers are arrested they are sent to Mae Sot and then across the border to Myawaddy. But some people are being sent to the migrant detention facility at Ranong, where we’re now assisting them,” U Htoo Chit said, referring to an area of southern Thailand.

Tens of thousands of Myanmar workers have returned to Myanmar since the new regulation was announced, especially at the Mae Sot/Myawaddy and Ranong/Kawthaung border crossings. More than 3,000 migrants crossed the two borders on June 29 and another 3,600 the following day. At Kawthaung, local authorities, civil society organizations (CSOs) and residents welcomed returning workers.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in her capacity as minister of foreign affairs, met with the Thai ambassador Jukr Boon-long on June 30, according to social media accounts associated with the foreign minister’s office.

“U Kyaw Zay Ya, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also met with the Thai Ambassador to discuss the situation of migrant workers in Thailand and to push for a pause while the law is implemented. We appealed to them to act with an eye towards the friendship of the two countries. The Thai Ambassador said that he understood the seriousness of the situation and that he would submit our concerns to the government,” said U Zaw Htay, director general of the State Counselor’s Office.

Thai media reported that, following a cabinet meeting on June 29, the Ministry of Labor announced some changes to the initial version of the regulations, including deferring arrest for migrant workers who get permits from a different employer and move to work for that employer or get temporary passports.

According to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, the 120-day delay on the new law resulted from a meeting of Thai and Myanmar labor experts that was held in Yangon (Rangoon) on June 30.

The new Thai law, which took effect on June 23, imposed stiff punishments for undocumented workers and their employers. Workers who cannot prove their right to work face fines of up to 10,000 Baht, and those working for companies other than the ones they have permission for will have to pay up to 100,000 Baht. Employers that hire undocumented workers face fines of 400,000-800,000 Baht.

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