Thailand backtracks on labour law after migrant workers flee

More than 2,000 undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia fled from Thailand this week after a decree aimed at managing foreign workers came into effect, officials said on Friday.

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BANGKOK // Thailand's military government said it will delay enforcing new labour regulations after thousands of migrant workers fled home to neighbouring countries this week fearing arrest and heavy fines under the new decree.

More than 2,000 undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia fled from Thailand this week after a decree aimed at managing foreign workers came into effect, officials said on Friday.

Workers from Thailand's poor neighbours, in particular Myanmar and Cambodia, make up the backbone of its manual labour force and many industries, including a multibillion dollar seafood industry, are heavily reliant on foreign workers.

The scramble is the latest chaos triggered by Thailand's efforts to regulate the millions of foreign workers who prop up its economy with jobs in factories, fishing boats and other low-paid work.

The junta has trumpeted a flurry of campaigns aimed at registering migrant workers and cracking down on illegal smuggling routes, but the efforts are often ad hoc and short-lived.

As a result, much of the migrant workforce remains undocumented and vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers and unscrupulous employers.

Under a decree that came into effect on June 17, an employer who hires an undocumented foreign worker faces a fine of up to 800,000 baht (Dh86,500).

The penalty has some businesses scrambling to fire undocumented workers or get them registered.

"Some employees are scared, because they employ illegal workers. Even though we aren't rounding these workers up they are still scared about the hefty fines," said Pornchai Kuntee, deputy commissioner of the Immigration Bureau.

"There will be an impact to the economy because foreign workers are an essential part of the workforce," he said.

Thailand's military government says it has made legalising foreign workers a priority to help business.

Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had said workers and their employers should be given an extension of 120 days to register and comply with the new decree, his deputy, Wissanu Krea-ngam, said on Friday after the regulations sparked a panic among migrant workers and their employers.

"[During this window] there will be no arrests or crackdown on illegal workers except for those who violate human trafficking laws," Mr Krea-ngam said.

The reprieve comes after thousands of labourers fled home to neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia fearing arrest and fines of up to $3,000 (Dh11,000) under the law which punishes migrant workers lacking valid work permits.

In Samut Sakhon, a seafood industry hub known as "Little Burma" for its concentration of Myanmar migrant workers, around 500 labourers have been returning home daily during the past week, said Suthasinee Kaewleklai from the Migrant Worker Rights Network.

"These workers don't have any documents and have to return to Myanmar as they fear needing to pay a heavy fine," she said.

The advocacy group also warned that traffickers frequently profit from such mass movements of migrants, with smugglers and border agents exacting fees from undocumented workers looking for a safe passage home.

A police chief in Myanmar's Karen state said around 6,000 migrant workers had returned home from Thailand since Thursday.

Meanwhile on the Cambodian border, the number of migrants streaming home has been increasing daily since the new law came to into effect, said Thai immigration officer Benjapol Robsawad.

Since Wednesday, nearly 2,000 workers have crossed back to Cambodia through the Poipet checkpoint, he said.

In 2014, some 250,000 Cambodians fled Thailand after fears that the newly-installed junta government would arrest and deport undocumented workers. They slowly trickled back in the following weeks.

* From wire agencies