Several hundred thousand Burmese migrant workers in Thailand could face deportation if they fail to register under the government’s National Verification Programme (NVP) before a 14 December deadline.
“We postponed the deadline in order to get unregistered people to come in and register but if the deadline passes without registration, they will not be allowed to work in the kingdom,” Panwadee Ploytabtim, director of the Chiang Mai employment office, under the Thai Ministry of Labour, told IRIN.
NVP - conceived in 2008 - was intended to give registered and verified migrant workers protection under Thai labour laws.
However, the small number of people registering due to the high costs incurred by migrants resulted in several extensions of the original 2010 deadline.
According to the Labour Ministry, there are over 1.3 million legal workers from neighbouring countries currently working in Thailand - 82 percent from Myanmar, 9.5 percent from Cambodia and 8.4 percent from Laos.
However, activists say more than two million Burmese workers are working in Thailand - mainly in low paying jobs in the construction, fishing and service industries.
“The whole migrant registration process in Thailand has always been overly complicated and very expensive, at least from the perspective of the migrant workers who don't have very much to start with,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.
Employers who pay migrant worker registration fees often deduct the money from salaries and hold onto passports to ensure they get their money back, said Robertson.
As of 30 August, 738,748 migrant workers had been registered under NVP.
While a formal legal contract may improve workers’ rights, the added cost often prompts migrants to seek alternative routes into the country, said Jackie Pollack of Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP), a grassroots group working to empower Burmese migrant communities in Thailand.
“For many people it will still be so much easier to cross the border into Thailand without documents rather than going into a major city like Rangoon [Yangon] to do all that,” though without proper papers, workers risk being abused by their employers, Pollack adds.
Migrant worker Aung Moe, 26, who was detained earlier this year, recalls in detail his arrest at a Thai-Burmese border restaurant earlier this year.
The police came into the restaurant and demanded to see my work permit but I didn’t have one, so they threatened to throw me in jail unless I paid them 15,000 baht [US$486].”
“I think it is a good idea if we can obtain a work permit more easily so we can make a better living, but it is not an easy process and everyone wants to get paid off,” Aung Moe complained.
The latest registration deadline, extended from June this year, comes as Myanmar is proposing to offer ID cards to unregistered and undocumented workers who wish to return home.
“It seems that Burma's Labour Ministry means to be taking up the issue of migrant workers and so hopefully they will be able to start to put a little pressure on Thailand to improve the conditions here. So there may be a bit more advocacy for the rights of workers, and Thailand might have to improve the conditions to keep the workers here,” said MAP’s Pollack.