Equality at work - Tackling the challenges: Underpaid, Overworked and Overlooked: the plight of young foreign migrant workers in Thailand

Migrant workers are often subject to discrimination because of their colour, race or religion, or simply because of their migrant status, says the ILO's new global report on discrimination worldwide.

Article | 07 May 2007

Migrant workers are often subject to discrimination because of their colour, race or religion, or simply because of their migrant status, says the ILO's new global report on discrimination worldwide (Note 1). This is also confirmed in a study by one of Thailand's leading universities that has found widespread exploitation of young, foreign migrant workers in homes, farms, factories and on fishing boats in the South-East Asian country. Allan Dow, Communications Officer of the project, reports from Thailand.

BANGKOK (ILO Online) – "I worked for two years, but never received any payment", said one of the respondents surveyed by researchers from Bangkok's Mahidol University in Thailand, who reported that her employer was "evil minded". The 17 year-old Cambodian girl worked as a domestic helper in the home of a Thai family. She said she was required to get up at 5 am each day and wasn't allowed to go to bed until 2 am.

"He slapped, hit and pinched me", said the girl, identified only as "D.O." in order to protect her identity – as well as protect her from any possible retaliation. "His wife laughed while he slapped me. She never tried to help. Their three children also hurt me", she said.

More than half of the foreign migrant domestic workers, and one-in-five migrant teens on fishing boats, were either prohibited from ever leaving their workplace or were "forced to work" – virtual slaves to the whims of their employers, says the study (Note 2) based on the Thai university survey and sponsored by the ILO's Mekong Sub-regional Project to Combat Trafficking in Children and Women.

While in some cases the abuse at the hands of local employers was so severe as that found in cases of human trafficking, psychological and verbal abuses were deemed routine. Other abuses ranged from physical assault, forced labour, a denial of freedom of movement, migrant children forced or coerced to work in hazardous conditions – all definable as worst forms of child labour for those under 18.

Often out of the sight of both the authorities and most members of the Thai public, 82 per cent of migrant domestic workers and 45 per cent of young migrants toiling on fishing boats said they were required to work more than 12 hours per day, often seven days per week.

The research underlines "an urgent need for effective labour inspection" particularly in work sectors where children under the age of 18 are concerned.

But only one-in-five migrant workers in the fishing boat/fish processing sector had ever encountered an official from the Labour Department. As for labour protection or worker's rights, most knew little if anything about their entitlements under Thailand's Labour Protection Act – a 1998 law which, in any event, does not extend protection to those working on fishing boats, agricultural work or domestic service.

The majority of workers in all employment sectors were paid below the legal minimum wage – a clear violation of Thai law. The survey found that many Thai employers also preferred to hire children and/or younger migrants as they were deemed more obedient and easier to control.

One of the most troubling aspects of the report is the attitude of employers toward migrants as it relates to freedom of movement. More than half of all the Thai employers interviewed agreed with a statement that they should 'lock migrants in at night so they don't escape'. Eight per cent of migrant domestic workers confirmed their employers had indeed locked them in before.

Thailand is a country with a more advanced economy than those of its neighbours – and thus acts as a magnet to hundreds of thousands of young economic migrants – especially from Myanmar (Burma), Lao PDR and Cambodia – many of whom enter the country undocumented and without work permits.

The report makes a total of 29 recommendations suggesting both separate and coordinated action by a number of actors to rectify the present exploitation faced by young migrants.

The research is part of ILO activities under a five year trafficking-prevention project supported by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID). The ILO's Mekong Sub-regional Project to Combat Trafficking in Children and Women begun in 1998 covering Cambodia, China (Yunnan Province), Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The project focuses on working with local partners in implementing projects in education and skills training, alternative livelihood promotion, legal literacy and awareness raising.

Growing concerns about discrimination of migrant workers

According to the ILO's new global report on discrimination, the plight of migrant workers is a growing concern worldwide, since foreign-born workers represent significant and rising proportions of the workforce in many countries.

"Estimated at 86 million over the world, and some 32 million in the developing regions, the movement of men and women seeking better job opportunities abroad is likely to increase in the coming years. Ten per cent of the workforce in Western Europe is currently made up of migrants, while in a number of African, Asian or American countries percentages are higher, representing over 50 per cent of the workforce in some Gulf States", says Manuela Tomei, the author of the report.

One manifestation of discrimination against migrant workers is their concentration, often regardless of their skill levels, in "3D" jobs (dirty, dangerous and degrading) where protection is often inadequate or absent in law or in practice, says the report.

Although most States tend to grant documented migrant workers de jure equality of treatment with nationals as regards remuneration, hours of work, holidays with pay, and minimum age, they face a variety of employment restrictions. The incidence and extent of differential treatment may vary depending on whether migrant workers are permanent or temporary, and according to whether they are high-skilled or low-skilled.

"High-skilled workers are usually offered more guarantees to shift towards permanent settlement than the low-skilled. Such preferences are doubly hard on low-skilled workers, who are already particularly vulnerable to exploitation and violations of their rights. If low skills are the result of denied equal opportunities in education or at work in their countries of origin because of their sex or religion or race, inferior treatment of low-skilled migrant workers in destination countries further aggravates discrimination", explains Manuela Tomei.

Note 1 - Equality at work: Tackling the challenges, Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, Report to the International Labour Conference, 96th Session, 2007.

Note 2 - The Mekong Challenge – Underpaid, Overworked and Overlooked: The realities of young migrant workers in Thailand, is published in both Thai and English. Limited number of hard copies available. Requests should be made via e-mail to: prevention@childtrafficking.net. Free downloads are also available at www.childtrafficking.net.