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Chapter 4: Evolution of migration-management policies in the GMS.

The previous two chapters provided an overview of the size and characteristics of migration and the migration process; the problems and risks faced by migrants before, during and after moving; and an assessment of the economic role of migrants from both a macro and microeconomic perspective. This chapter describes the policy and regulatory framework on migration in the GMS, mainly focusing on the evolution of migration policies in Thailand and its driving factors. The chapter briefly analyzes and highlights the current limitations of this framework and its prospects for improvement in the future.

4.1 Pragmatic Development of Migration Policies

The policies to manage intra-GMS labor migration started unilaterally in Thailand before evolving through bilateral agreements with its direct neighbors. They developed as a series of practical responses to unfolding events and changes in labor needs:

* In 1992, a first migrant registration policy was introduced, aiming at controlling and improving the entry, working and living conditions of Burmese workers who were then allowed to enter and work in the four provinces along the border with Myanmar This registration effort largely failed, with employers registering less than 10,000 workers, partly due to a high fee, the lack of understanding of the benefits of registration, and rampant corruption.

* In 1996, following a migration 'amnesty,' employers registered 300,000 illegal migrants who were allowed to work in seven categories of jobs in 47 provinces for two years: 87 percent were from Myanmar 9 percent from Cambodia, and 4 percent from Lao PDR. The campaign allegedly reached about half of all migrants estimated to be living and working in Thailand at the time. In 1998, the same workers were allowed to extend their registration by a year Eligible job categories increased from seven to 47, and eligible provinces from 47 to 54. Yet, only 30 percent of the registered workers (106,684) renewed their registration, again partly due to difficulties in enforcing the regulations and payment of fees for employers, especially following the 1997 financial crisis. These remaining 106,684 workers saw their registration extended once more in 1999 for two years, while the policy restricted them to work in 18 job categories in 34 provinces because of rising domestic unemployment.

* In 2001, an amnesty allowed 562,249 migrants to register for a year; it was extended in 2002, and then again in 2003 (only 288,870 renewed it then though), while the government drafted a comprehensive migration management plan.

* In 2004, a National Agenda to deal with migrant workers was finally prepared and approved by the Cabinet. This agenda relied on: (i) strengthening border controls while (ii) implementing the bilateral MoUs on labor exchange signed with Lao PDR in 2002, and with Cambodia and Myanmar in 2003. Under yet another amnesty, employers could register their undocumented workers with the Department of Labor: 1.2 millions registered, and 814,247 obtained work permits: of these 74.9 percent were from Myanmar 12.9 percent from Cambodia, and 12.2 percent from Lao PDR. In 2005, those registered in 2004 were offered a one year extension (although only 785,000 showed up for it), while the government started implementing the bilateral MoUs.

In March and April 2004, the Thai Cabinet passed two resolutions aiming at setting up a comprehensive system of migration management that would integrate the efforts of all relevant government agencies along seven points: (1) organizing a formal system for potential migrants to apply from their countries of origin to come and work legally in Thailand; (2) ensuring that employers enforce national labor standards for both Thai and foreign workers; (3) intercepting people crossing national borders illegally; (4) arresting all involved in facilitating illegal migrations; (5) repatriating illegal migrants to their countries of origin; (6) publicizing the organization of the labor migration system to both workers, employers and government officials; and (7) following up and assessing the effectiveness and relevance of the system.

In effect, this agenda is currently being refined as it is implemented following the MoUs Thailand signed with Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar to regulate how citizens of each country can work in the other (82) Their intention is to help match labor demand and supply, to protect the rights of migrants during their journey and work, and to ensure that workers will not settle permanently in the destination country. (83) These agreements laid the directions of a two-phase approach to regulate labor migration:

* The first phase was to legalize irregular workers in Thailand (see Figure Al in Annex 1): After the 2004 registration, officials from Lao PDR and Cambodia came to Thailand to interview the registered migrants who claimed to come from their countries, and to deliver them Certificates of Identity (CI) if they were confirmed as citizens. CIs regularized the workers' immigration status and allowed them to apply for a two-year work permit. (84) After two years, workers were to return in their countries of origin where they could apply for a new work permit following the procedures set in the second phase.

* The second phase (underway) aims to develop a system in which private recruitment companies recognized by each government will help match labor demand and supply with respect to the immigration and labor laws of both countries, and international labor conventions. Their roles will be to send and manage workers abroad and to protect their rights. They would compile lists of job vacancies from employers in the destination countries, and match the positions with demands from applicants in countries of origin. Once applicants satisfy the requirements to obtain a contract, visa, work permit and health insurance, the companies would then arrange the legal process for them to travel and work in the destination country, and would further follow-up on the evolution of the workers' conditions. On the receiving (Thai) side, the government plans to set up a single-stop service for representatives of recruitment companies to register migrants and obtain their work permits.

4.2 Rights and Duties of Migrants

Under the proposed system, a legal migrant worker would obtain a contract valid for up to two years with a specific employer renewable once. The worker would agree to pay income taxes and to contribute 15 percent of his or her wages to a "repatriation fund"--designed to provide an incentive not to stay in the receiving country. This is de facto a scheme for compulsory savings that would be withdrawn from wages, placed in a fund, and given back to the worker--with interest--upon expiration of the contract, once he or she has returned to his or her "permanent" home address. After a maximum of four years in the country of destination, the worker would then have to return home and wait three years to apply for a new permit.

Daily cross-border commuters and seasonal workers living in provinces across the borders are already allowed to receive passes to work in Thailand, without a formal contract (they are mainly farm laborers, domestic helpers, and petty traders). This allowance will continue, supposedly with strengthened vigilance against the use of the fake passes that some irregular migrants utilize to enter Thailand.

In the country of destination, workers would have the same rights as nationals to be protected from abuse in working conditions and wages, and to access social services.

In Thailand, these rights are already extended to the migrants currently registered:

* The 1998 Labor ProtectionAct protects the rights of all workers--even in irregular situation--to submit a case against an employer for failing to follow the provisions of the Act. (The Act provides the basis for comprehensive labor legislation and ensures among other: equal hiring and wage practice independently of gender, the payment of minimum wage, and provisions for the safety of women and children).

* After paying the same health insurance fee as Thai nationals, registered migrant workers and their families will have access to the "30 Baht health scheme" allegedly the best health care program in the GMS.

* Children of migrants will be allowed to enroll in Thai public schools for free.

Despite the limitations of the proposed approach and the difficulties in securing access to services for migrants, all of the international agencies working on migration and labor protection we interviewed in Thailand noted that the Thai system of labor protection and social services is the most advanced in the GMS, and that since 2004, the Thai Government has made considerable efforts to improve the working conditions and protection of migrant workers. According to the Thai Bureau of Labor Protection, the free trade agreements with the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) include strong emphasis on the quality of Thailand's labor law and on its effective enforcement, which should further support the efforts of the government to protect workers--natives and migrants.

Before analyzing the limitations of the system in reaching and supporting migrants, we present the main national actors of the regional policy process to show some of the different outlooks and forces that shape the design of policies, and constrain their enforcement.

4.3 National Agencies Formulating and Implementing Migration Policies

Policy discussions to reduce illegal migration were earlier part of the GMS Economic Cooperation Framework, but now fall under the larger Aerawadee Chaopraya Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), in which Thailand works to develop economic cooperation with other GMS countries. The strategy includes the promotion of private Thai investments inside neighboring countries to hire local workers there so that they would not illegally cross the border to find work in Thailand. It is helping develop industries in provinces of Lao PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar across the Thai border, (85) while the Thai Government also builds infrastructure in these countries. (86)

In Thailand, the Ministry of Labor was recently given the role to coordinate policies and actions of the ministries working with migrants. Recommendations regarding labor migration issues are taken by the Committee on Illegal Migrant Workers Administration with representatives of 23 offices from 13 ministries, but four ministries have a persuasive voice, and their individual agendas strongly influence the evolution of polices related to the migration management system. These include: (i) the Ministry of Interior who wants to control the number of migrants; (ii) the Ministry of Health, which seeks to extend universal health coverage to migrants as well as Thais; (iii) the Ministry of Labor who wants to facilitate migration according to the economy's labor needs; and (iv) the National Security Council, which is concerned with not turning Thailand into a safe haven for asylum seekers, and aims to deter and restrict the entry and stay of migrants. There is thus a marked division between Labor and Health and their interest in promoting the facilitation, or at least legalization, of migration, and Interior and National Security inclined to tightly control the movement and rights of foreigners. Decisions are taken as decrees by the Cabinet. Without a clear and shared long-term objective, so far the recommendations taken by the committee have depended on short-term objectives dictated by the Cabinet; meanwhile, the political influence of each ministry over the Cabinet has varied with economic, social and political conjunctures. (87)

Other GMS countries have had less impact on the development of a regional migration management system, but each has concerns about the issues, and some have experience and capacities that may be useful to learn from:

* Cambodia has a generic immigration law that does not cover the rights of its citizens abroad. In practice it tolerates but neither facilitates nor discourages out-migration. The Ministry of Labor and the Department of Anti-trafficking of the Ministry of Interior are currently developing a national policy for migration management in collaboration with Thai authorities through the MoU on cooperation in employment of workers, and the MoU on human trafficking, and with support from the IOM.

* The Lao Government's approach to labor migration is relatively lenient and driven by economic and social considerations. In 1995, it signed an agreement on labor exchange with Vietnam by which employers could hire foreign workers after authorization from the Labor Administration, provided they give first preference to nationals with similar qualifications. Officially, the employment of foreigners is then subject to a time-bound contract and to a transfer of skills from foreign to domestic workers. The Government is also concerned about Laotian citizens working abroad illegally, mostly in Thailand, and about the increase in human trafficking. In 2002 the Government signed a MoU with Thailand on labor exchange, and in 2004 a MoU on human trafficking, both of which are the basis of the current processes implemented.

* Vietnam actively promotes labor export to reduce domestic unemployment and to increase the inflow of foreign currency. In the 1980s, its Government sent skilled workers to Eastern Europe and the former USSR, and since 1994 has sent lesser skilled workers to Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and the Middle-East. Working with the ministries of Labor Public Security, and Foreign Affairs, private recruitment firms manage the employment of migrants. At no fee for workers, they (i) secure contracts with employers, (ii) inform and train migrants on labor legislation, recruitment conditions, and their rights, benefits and obligations, (iii) register workers with labor authorities in Vietnam and the destination country and (iv) protect workers' rights abroad, filing complaints with authorities in case of infringement of the law by employers, and paying workers compensation in case of violation of the contract by the employers. (88) So far there is no similar system to manage the work of Vietnamese migrants in the GMS where most Vietnamese laborers are illegal.

* In Myanmar labor migration is officially regulated by the 1999 "Law on Overseas Employment", by which private firms registered with the Ministry of Labor are the sole legal conduits for migrants to work abroad. In reality, because of cumbersome and expensive requirements, very few companies registered their activities until the promulgation of a 2005 anti-trafficking law that threatened companies of prosecution for trafficking. By January 2006 then, 57 companies had registered. They mainly recruit workers going to Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar Korea and Japan. Despite the 2003 MoU between Thailand and Myanmar "on cooperation in the employment of workers", neither side has yet effectively controlled the movement of migrants from Myanmar to Thailand.

* In Yunnan, despite a large number of border crossings (14.08 million in 2004), there is little information about and control over migration. (89)
Box 4.1 Regulation of Migration: Lessons from Myanmar

Officially labor migration from Myanmar is regulated by a 1999 law
on "overseas employment", and a 2005 law against trafficking in

Private recruitment companies registered with the State are
supposed to be the only intermediaries to send workers abroad and
protect their rights. They mainly send semi-skilled workers to
Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar; Korea and

Because of a cumbersome red-tape and high costs, very few companies
yet ever officially registered. It is only with the 2005
promulgation of an anti-trafficking law that the 1999 law started
to gain some effectiveness: by January 2006, 57 private overseas
employment recruitment agencies had thus registered with the
Ministry of Labor for fear of being prosecuted for trafficking.

The system remains far from efficient and few workers use the
official recognized agencies to go overseas. This is partly due to
high costs such as a 10% tax on income for workers, and their
obligation to use the official family remittance system to channel
30 to 50% of their earnings back home at an extremely
disadvantageous exchange rate.

It is unlikely to be applicable to labor exchanges with Thailand
where only 6,267 professional workers from Myanmar were registered
in 2004, the rest working in unskilled and low-paid positions. Most
migrants to Thailand are from along the border and there is little
incentive for them to go to Yangon, find and pay an employment
agency (the current fees for countries other than Thailand range
from USD600 to 5000), and register with the Ministry of Labor
Instead, they simply cross the border and take whatever work is
available in Thailand, in some cases paying an agent fee for

Source: Set Aung, W (2006). The Time to Turn Irregular into Regular
Migrants (Myanmar).

4.4 Policy Limitations and Prospects for Improvement

Although there is no single best approach to manage migration, following the situations and needs discussed in the earlier chapters, the main objectives of managing labor migration in the GMS would be to (i) match the regional demand and offer for work; (ii) help governments monitor the movement of persons across international borders; (iii) protect migrants during their journey and in their places of work; (iv) facilitate the remittance and productive investment of migrants' savings; and (v) help returnees reintegrate their countries of origin. The current system being developed partly addresses the first three objectives, with a focus on the control of migration flows, but the two last, which depend largely on the sending countries, are not yet targeted.

We review current implementation issues, before looking at some design issues for social protection and proposing a complementary angle to approach migration management that lays direction for the research agenda detailed later.

4.4.1 Barriers to Implementation

We see four main limitations to the implementation of the registration and regularization of illegal migrants, and of the development of a formal labor brokering system. Some are due to perceptions that can be changed (lack of awareness, and cost), but others will likely take long to be removed (limited capacity and lack of political will):

(i) Lack of awareness of registration benefits. Few workers know about or understand the value of legal registration, which grants them protection and access to social services. Meanwhile, many employers may not realize the potential gains in terms of productivity and stability of having healthier workers, who are more skilled and better integrated into the surrounding communities.

(ii) Perceived cost of the process. Market forces push employers to keep the lowest costs to remain internationally competitive, and some perceive the THB3800 registration cost as a deterrent compared to the "market value" of the worker (they can pay an illegal farm worker THB2000-3000 per month). For workers, although the fee is low compared to the benefits associated with it, it still represents a month's salary for an unskilled worker, and employers usually withdraw that fee from the worker's income. (90)

(iii) Limited capacity of implementing agencies. Despite receiving training from the Thai Ministry of Finance, both Cambodia and Lao PDR have limited technical capacities to set up an efficient system of information exchange and private recruitment. Currently, they lack the human, financial and technical capacities to issue CIs to illegal migrants and are unlikely to finish the process by the 2006 deadline. Thailand on its side has a limited capacity to enforce border control and to monitor working conditions nationwide.

(iv) Lack of political support from important actors. Their ambiguous legal status and ensuing fear of deportation, combined with the sometimes arbitrary behavior on the part of some Thai security officials, deters many migrants from seeking access to the services otherwise offered by social ministries. Meanwhile, poor governance among public officials on all sides of the borders undermines the enforcement of regulations for migration control, working conditions and access to services. An implementation stumbling block had been the unwillingness of the Burmese government to actively participate in the process, having for instance made no progress in the delivery of CIs to Burmese workers, however the recent agreement by the Government of Myanmar to open three points near the border that will issue CIs to registered migrants of Burmese nationality should increase progress.

4.4.2 Fitness of Design for Social Protection

In terms of design, the proposed second phase of the MoU implementation appears cumbersome and costly compared to the expectations of both migrants and employers.

The actual cost per worker of the full labor exchange process is to date unknown, but will partly determine whether migrants and employers adopt the formal migration system. (91) The planned 'forced savings' of 15 percent of workers' wages in a repatriation fund may be a strong counter-incentive for workers to follow the formal process. And in any case, forced remittance schemes are probably not the most effective measure to ensure that temporary migrants return home. When given a choice, migrants typically avoid such systems. For example, under the deferred Pay Scheme, miners from Lesotho working in South Africa were supposed to participate in a mandatory savings scheme, which would deposit 30 percent of their wages into a Lesotho bank. But many miners avoided it, usually in complicity with their employers, the mining companies (GEP, 2005).

Another strong disincentive to adopting the formal migration system comes from the Thai government's proposal that employers pay a refundable fee of THB 10,000-50,000 (USD 300-1,300) per worker as insurance that employers will follow their engagements in terms of labor practices. This is a large fee per unskilled worker, and probably beyond the means of many small employers.

Overall, employers are unlikely to spend much time and money recruiting low-skilled workers through intermediary agencies, while hiring illegal workers remains easy and inexpensive. Similarly, the return that migrants expect from working abroad is cash, and they may not understand the importance of protection and may see the whole formal brokering process as an unnecessarily costly insurance mechanism. (92) Most Burmese workers in Thailand for instance live along the border with Thailand, and there is no incentive for them to go to Yangoon (or the new capital Pyinmana), to find and pay an employment agency (the current fees for countries other than Thailand range from USD 600 to 5,000), and register with the Ministry of Labor. Instead, they simply cross the border and take whatever work is available in Thailand, in some cases paying a transportation fee to an agent. The procedures proposed thus seem more adapted to the recruitment of workers with relatively scarce skills and a high market value than to the hiring of unskilled labor

In terms of the protection of workers and their families, several important gaps remain in the system envisaged: First, the approach will not allow migrants to stay in the country of destination for more than four years (six for those already in Thailand), which is a concern for migrants who cannot go back home either because they fled political oppression, or because they were destitute in their countries of origin. Second, the proposed system facilitates the employment of single individuals, with no provision for family reunion. The only way for couples to travel together will be for both spouses to find employment near each other Under the system, even if a registered worker is currently living in Thailand with his or her family, only the worker alone will be able to come back to Thailand once he or she obtain a work permit in his or her country of origin. Third, there is a strong concern that the migrants' income to be kept in a deportation fund will give undue control to employers over their workers, who would be even less likely to complain about their working conditions or to leave and seek better working conditions if they are maltreated.

4.4.3 Facilitating Rather than Restricting Migration

Access to cheap labor is important for labor-intensive industries in Thailand to remain competitive, and with the diminishing appeal of the "dirty, difficult and dangerous" jobs to Thai workers, Thai industries continue to need and attract workers from Lao PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar Because of this strong demand and the continuing push factors in the countries sending migrants, it is unlikely that labor migration to Thailand will decrease anytime soon. In these conditions, from a regional perspective as well as from the Thai interest, it seems more rational to ensure that migrants can move and work in safe conditions and best use their earnings, rather than trying to restrict their movement.

The ad-hoc nature of the evolution of a regional migration policy so far reflects the limited control that even the most advanced government in the region has on migration flows, (93) and suggests that facilitating legal migration might have more results than trying to repress the movement of labor which determinants are structural.

This hints that a system of incentive to comply with the main directions of the migration management objectives, rather than one of control, is more likely to be widely adopted. On the workers' side, disseminating information on the rights and duties of registered migrants could increase the awareness of the advantages (and of the relatively low-cost) of being registered--hence enticing migrants to use the legal channels. Meanwhile, helping strengthen labor organizations of migrants would help leverage government efforts by forcing employers (from within the companies rather than through inspections) to follow the regulations on wages and working conditions. On the employers' side, documenting and publicizing how improving the living and working conditions of workers can result in increased productivity, better skilled and more stable workforce, and improved business can, by demonstration, lead more employers to enforce the same labor standards for foreign and domestic workers.

In terms of the brokering services to match the demand and supply of labor, and of the deliverance of permits by government representatives, the approach will likely only work if the services are convenient and affordable to the workers and the employers. This suggests that migrants should not have to travel to their capital cities to find a job abroad, obtain passports, process the request for work permits, etc., that there should be more than a handful of brokering companies (although all should follow standards) and that one-stop services be offered close to the main sources of migration, or at least near the borders. Similarly, the cost of services such as the registration with government, and fee to the brokering company, should be in relation to the potential income of the migrant or to the extra revenue to the employer of hiring a foreign worker In the words of an official from the Lao Ministry of Labor the goal of the migration management process should be "to serve migrants better and at a lower cost than smugglers do."
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Title Annotation:LABOR MIGRATION in the Greater Mekong Sub-region
Publication:Labor Migration In the Greater Mekong Sub-Region - Synthesis Report: Phase 1
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Previous Article:Chapter 3: Migration and the individual.
Next Article:Chapter 5: Future research and policy development agenda.

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