COVID-19 Op-ed

The Intensification of Thailand’s Biopower Towards Migrant Workers

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Ma. Josephine Therese Emily G.
Doctoral candidate of International Development
Studies from the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University. I
am a recipient of the ASEAN and Non-ASEAN Countries and MAIDS-GRID
Scholarship for ASEAN Students. She took her Master’s in Business
Administration (major in International Project Management) in Kyoto
University under the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Scholarship – Japan
Scholarship Program.

The Thai government’s biopower asserts biopolitical imperative
to protect migrant workers from the virus. It utilizes dominant means of
discipline and sovereign power (e.g., lockdowns and emergency decrees),
resulting in a partial curtailment of socio-economic freedoms and democratic
involvement in political decision-making. It regulated and altered migrant
workers’ life processes wherein numerous policies introduced were meant to
govern their mobility. Various protection interventions that were provided to
both documented and undocumented migrant workers are plagued with issues and
challenges. First, the logic of securitizing public space through the conduct
of contract tracing fortified the surveillance and policing infrastructure
capabilities of the state. People’s skepticism toward state-promoted contact
tracing technologies and the possibility of its privacy and data protection
vulnerabilities have undermined its effectiveness. Data privacy issues have
veered the public away from the real purpose of these contact tracing
measures which could be potentially important in flattening the curve. Based
on a study conducted by Privacy International, cheap smartphones, usually
used by migrant workers, have intrinsic data protection vulnerabilities
exposing users to increased surveillance and hacking and vulnerable to
interruptions in critical security updates (Privacy International, 2017).
These issues are important especially as Thailand authorities are perceived
to operate with impunity due to escalating tensions amid corruption issues,
student arrests and economic fallout from the pandemic (France
24,2020).Second, the late conduct of random COVID-19 tests among migrant
workers may have aggravated the problem at a regional level as home states
are not ready to accept returning migrants. The announcement of Thailand’s
shutdown created a mass exodus of Burmese and Cambodian migrant workers due
to fear of starvation having no job, money, healthcare and other resources.
Most of them opted to return home despite being discouraged from doing so as
staying in Thailand meant inaccessibility of basic needs such as food and
shelter. Since migrant workers mainly came from neighboring states with
relatively weak healthcare systems, returning migrant workers who were not
able to get tested may become potential carriers of the virus. The Burmese
Government requested its Thai counterparts to only allow 2,500 returnees per
day through the Myawaddy border gate; however, due to the postponement of the
Emergency Decree in Thailand until the 31 May 2020, returns were delayed to
allow for the necessary arrangements to be put in place by the Thai
government.Third, the normalization of lockdown restrained cross-border
travel. Border checkpoints were closed across the state (for people) and
prohibited movement at unofficial crossings. In fact, on the 26 March 2020,
the Burmese Government issued an emergency decree that banned entry to
non-Thai nationals, except for shippers, diplomats, drivers, pilots, and
others allowed by the state. It was forced to reopen its borders to allow
thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to return to
their home countries. These uncertain border closures, unstable food chains
and income sources added to the sense of panic felt within migrant
communities during this public health emergency. This scenario led to more
migrants crossing at non-official crossing points.Moreover, despite
announcements of regulatory policies, documented migrant workers have still
been worse off during pandemic. First, few were able to receive unemployment
benefits and were not able to find new employment. Despite Thai authorities
grants to legal foreign workers who registered under article 33 of the Social
Security Act to receive all benefits (e.g., 62% of their pay but not
exceeding 90 days and medical care for check-up and treatment), migrant
workers have struggled to find new employment, have been unable to cope with
their daily expenses, and unable to send remittances. Second, no clear and
consistent policies were created to accommodate workers to return for work
nor support migrant workers to enter the registration process.  Aside
from bureaucratic delays, migrant workers still face economic and financial
challenges as domestic businesses have taken advantage of the pandemic to
push their employees to tend resignation letters to minimize severance pay
(e.g., receiving their next month’s salary and other pending unpaid leave
entitlements in case of contract termination). Lastly, few were able to
receive social security payments due to difficulties in securing requirements
to receive aid such as a Thai bank account and at least six months payment of
government contributions.In sum, Thai authorities have failed to aid
undocumented migrants which includes those working in the informal sectors
(e.g., domestic work, agriculture, and fishing), regular workers whose
employers have not enrolled them in the social security system, and
undocumented migrant workers. Furthermore, it failed to conduct mass-testing
among migrant workers. This lack of coronavirus testing, in addition to the
long incubation period of the virus, has made it incomprehensible to
determine how many of those who left Thailand were carriers of the COVID-19
virus and how many of the undocumented foreign workers did not seek medical
support due to high costs involved and a fear of the repercussions of
engaging with authorities (e.g., deportation for those with irregular
status). It also failed to ensure the availability of protective gear such as
personal protective equipment (PPE), masks and hand sanitizers for those who
continued to work on high-rise buildings, apartment complexes and building
sites. Moreover, the congested and poor sanitary conditions of migrant
accommodations show that social distancing is implausible in their community.
Inadequate and inept policy responses have disregard vulnerable migrant
workers and reflect the overwhelming disparities in treatment between
citizens and the migrant population.References:

———————————– Biopower is defined as a form of power
that intends to save and take charge of life. This is a situation wherein the
concept of life is subjected to explicit calculation in the knowledge-power
regime while biopolitics is the political rationality expressed through the
administration of biopower.

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