Minimum wage and the migrant 'bogeyman'

In the unmarked offices of Burma Lawyers’ Council in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, Saw Htun is laughing. The source of this 36-year-old labour rights advisor’s amusement is the idea that Burmese migrant workers might soon be earning 300 baht a day – set to become Thailand’s minimum wage if Yingluck Shinawatra’s newly elected government gets its way. “This won’t apply to Burmese workers,” he says. “They don’t have the ability to make Yingluck Shinawatra prime minister. Thai workers do.” Given that migrant workers in Mae Sot are lucky if they make even two-thirds of Tak province’s current minimum wage of 162 baht, you can forgive Saw Htun the cynicism.

The campaign to derail the Pheu Thai Party-led government’s plans to raise daily minimum wages has been determined and at times shrill. Since the party’s election victory on 3 July, groups representing vested interests like the Federation of Thai Industries and the Thai Chamber of Commerce – not to mention Democrat Party politicians anxious to score points against the government following a humiliating electoral defeat – have been aided by large sections of the Thai media in waging what amounts to a propaganda war against the policy.

Perhaps inevitably, the Burmese bogeyman has featured heavily. In an editorial entitled “Pheu Thai’s wage hike doesn’t add up for Thailand”, The Nation claimed that boosting minimum wages could “open the floodgates for illegal migrant workers”. On the same day in Thailand’s largest tabloid, Thai Rath, columnist Lom Plianthit was making similar doom-laden predictions. “Burmese, Lao and Cambodian workers will flood in to dig for gold in Thailand… If one million more flood in, the security of Thailand will undoubtedly be shaken.” Given the vital role migrant workers play in so many of Thailand’s key industries, this was an unseemly display of hypocrisy meeting hyperbole. Was there any substance to the scare tactics?

The first observation to make is that few of the 3-4 million migrant workers in Thailand, 80% of whom are Burmese, are paid the minimum wage anyway. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Thai law links labour rights to a worker’s nationality or immigration status. In line with international standards, it doesn’t. That hasn’t prevented a depressing tendency to underpay migrants – not to mention worse abuses.

In Mae Sot district, home to some 300 textile and garment factories that operate in a kind of labour-law no man’s land, almost no migrant workers make the legal minimum of 162 baht per day. Moe Swe, head of Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, which fights for workers’ rights in the border area and across Thailand, said workers in Mae Sot had to be satisfied with what employers were willing to pay – and that was never 162 baht.

“The employers keep their work permit and migrant registration card. So the workers cannot move. If they run away, they become illegal. The other problem is that it is quite difficult to change jobs,” he said. “These limitations make workers powerless.”

Moe Swe, who says Thai factory owners displeased with his work fighting exploitation once put a price on his head, said many companies paid just 60 baht for an 11-hour shift. The reward for compulsory overtime is frequently nothing more than a tub of instant noodles. The average wage, he said, is 65-80 baht per day. “In Mae Sot, nobody gets the minimum wage, this is quite sure,” he said. The idea that workers on the border might earn 300 baht for their daily toils, then, is clearly fanciful.

But for migrants, it can get much worse. Many are not merely exploited, but enslaved. During UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking Joy Ngozi Ezeilo’s recent mission to Thailand, she heard shocking tales of victims of the trade in human beings. The case of Ye, a Burmese man trafficked into Thailand with promises of a monthly salary of Bt4,200 a month, was one of them. Arriving, he was told he would have to work on a fishing boat for free to pay off debts incurred in bringing him here, according to The Nation. “Ye told of migrants who, exhausted and unable to continue working, were simply pushed into the sea. He said he felt hopeless and hated the captain of the boat, who took advantage of him and the other workers… Ye worked for eight months on one boat. He was never paid for his work and forbidden to keep any cash of his own.” This is an extreme case, but by no means isolated.

It would nevertheless be wrong to pretend that every migrant worker is underpaid or a victim of abuse. In the provinces that surround Bangkok, Thailand’s industrial heartlands, workers are more often treated in line with the law. Export-oriented businesses such as manufacturing and seafood processing plants are subject to inspections and have to pay minimum wages.

Frequently, though, they will have fully paid workers on the books and underpaid employees off them. Workers with many years’ experience and those in more senior positions – foremen in factories and on construction sites, for example – are the most likely to be rewarded. Still, Jackie Pollock, head of the Chiang Mai-based Migrant Assistance Programme, estimates that “no more than 10 percent” of migrant workers in Thailand are paid at the legal levels.

So can Thailand expect a “flood” of migrants across its borders? Such claims rest on a misconception of the factors and mechanisms that bring migrants to Thai workplaces. Assoc. Professor Sean Turnell of Australia’s Macquarie University, an expert on the economics of Burma, told DVB that the concerns of some Thai commentators “do not hold water”;

“Burmese workers are overwhelmingly motivated by ‘push’ factors (i.e. conditions in Burma, economic and otherwise) rather than ‘pull’ factors (the intrinsic attractiveness of Thailand’s labour market),” he said.

There is also a myopic assumption that people in Burma know about labour laws in Thailand. “If migrant workers knew that they were entitled to minimum wage and labour rights, then that would be a great thing,” said Pollock.

“But I don’t think they do – and certainly when they’re in Burma they don’t. It’s not a great pull factor because it’s unknown to migrants.”

Turnell agreed. “I would suggest that the average person fleeing Burma for Thailand would have no idea about Thailand’s labour laws, and these would have zero impact on their movement,” he said.

Still, the misconceptions didn’t stop news outlets claiming the policy had already led to illegal migrants setting foot on Thai soil. On July 10, The Nation reported that 113 Cambodian workers had entered Thailand “in the hope of getting paid a minimum wage of Bt300 per day as promised by the Pheu Thai-led government.” Not so much as a single quote was supplied to back the suggestion that the Cambodians would not have entered the country anyway, as they do every day.

“If you look at the statistics, there’s been no evidence at all that there’s been any substantial increase in people coming into the country since the policy of the Thai government was announced,” said Andy Hall of the Human Rights and Development Foundation.

This somewhat inconvenient, if spurious, story led to then-prime-minister-elect Yingluck coming out with a worrying denial. “Alien workers are not connected to the 300 baht minimum wage,” she declared, prompting labour organisations and NGOs to point out that migrants are legally entitled to the same wages as Thais. Is the new prime minister of Thailand ignorant of her own country’s laws? Or is this a sign that she is content with the status quo – where some workers are more equal than others?

Opposition to the 300-baht wage – which might have gone some way to correcting the widening gap between Thailand’s rich and poor – already seems to have forced the government to backtrack. According to the Bangkok Post, Commerce Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong recently told a major meeting on the wage hike policy that the government “would not try to force the private sector to comply with the wage hike policy” but would “take the lead by increasing the minimum wage for workers of state enterprises and employees of state agencies.” Perhaps migrant workers will not be the only ones left out in the cold.

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