COVID-19 Op-ed

Mekong Migrant Workers in Thailand: Pursuit of Rights-based Approach in Addressing COVID-19 Impacts

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Ma. Josephine Therese Emily G. TevesSarah Grace L.

Sarah Grace L.
is a graduate student from the University of the
Philippines’ College of Education. She received her bachelor’s degree in
secondary education major in special education with honors from the same
institution in 2009. She has worked for several years as an educator for
children with developmental disabilities and indulged in her entrepreneurial
interests in the food industry. Ma. Josephine Therese Emily G.
is currently a doctoral candidate of International
Development Studies from the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn
University. She is 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.

COVID-19 exposes socioeconomic inequality architecture in the
global arena and exhibits a multiplicity of sociopolitical interventions. It
decreases estimated global output from 32 percent to 13 percent in 2020 and
increases unemployment to sectors in trade-oriented emerging economies such
as Thailand (WTO, 2020). For instance, Thailand’s household debt expanded to
a significant level and second quarter GDP contracted to 12.2 percent, making
the annual growth estimates to further contract to 7.8-7.3 percent due to the
impact of the pandemic (Thai PBS, 2020). On the other hand, measures to push
the economy and to protect public health may have negative impact on another
person’s right. Hence, addressing its impacts requires alignment with
rights-based approach as it offers a unique opportunity to help everyone,
especially the vulnerable groups. This entails due attention to the
international human rights framework that puts human beings, with their needs
and preferences, at the center of any intervention.Thailand has been hosting
significant number of workers from many parts of the world, particularly from
Mekong region such as Myanmar (48%), Cambodia (34%), Laos (18%) and Vietnam
(0.001%) (ILO, 2019).  As of August 2019, there were 2,877,144
documented migrant workers in Thailand primarily employed in low-skilled
jobs, including fishing, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, domestic
work. Socioeconomic uncertainties and disruptions caused by the pandemic
reveal the structural challenges in their social protection. Aside from the
trauma of deportation, host state has viewed them as potential carriers of
virus. Despite their significant contribution in Thailand’s socioeconomic
environment, the Thai government’s overall response in their situation
suffers from a performance dilemma. They should have the same privilege
to access social safety nets such as the provisioning of severance and
sustenance pay and other pending unpaid leave privileges in case of contract
termination as part of mitigating the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.
Yet, many are still left behind (Sandford,2020).The Mekong migrant workers’
vulnerability has been exposed during the pandemic. Majority of them are
living in perilous conditions with inadequate state support and suffering
from pre-existing health conditions due to their employment (The
Thaiger,2020).  They find it difficult to finance their daily expenses
as they were laid off, rarely receiving any financial and health support from
the Thai government and not receiving adequate Civil Society Organization
(CSO) support. Unfortunately, Thai authorities’ mitigation response has
indirectly generated tensions and contradictions among them. Hence, in order
to ensure their human rights during the pandemic, the Thai government should
pursue the rights-based approach on its migrant worker policies, such as the

  1. Create
    accessible complaint mechanisms for migrant workers and impose stricter
    penalties for violation of their labor rights.
    Around 500,000
    migrants had not been granted health insurance renewals and 1,000,000 migrant
    workers were not able to receive social security due to their incomplete work
    documents as their employers were not able to provide termination letters on
    which by law are required to do so (Fawthrop,2020).Migrant Workers Rights
    Network has stated that migrant workers have not received their redundancy
    pay. Only 3 out of over 70 companies have remunerated unemployed migrant
    workers and only one paid those on furlough 75% of their salaries due to the
    pandemic. Moreover, employers were not able to provide preventive measures
    such as clean and hygienic living conditions, clean water, masks and quarantine
    places (Fawthrop,2020) (Boonlert,2020). In this regard, accessible complaint
    mechanisms should be made available to allow employers to be accountable to
    their actions and halt further violations towards migrant workers.
  2. Institute proactive labor and social protection to
    all migrants across sectors.
    Migrant workers should receive
    fair access to health facilities and appropriate working conditions, labor
    and social protection laws. Migrant worker groups encourage the Thai
    government to assert clear policies of access to free public healthcare
    appropriately prepared to deal with the complexities of a pandemic and to
    facilitate guidelines and legal frameworks for streamlining the access to the
    health care system for all kinds migrant workers, regardless of their status,
    within a human-rights lens. This may include strengthening cooperation for
    the Employment of Workers with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar that allow their
    nationals to enter and work legally in Thailand as contract labor for up to
    four years, provisioning of information campaigns and action plans in going
    after carriers, the determination of migrants’ health needs and cooperation
    with migrants’ home states. Indirectly, this would help the most vulnerable
    by providing institutions and governance a provisional bridge to solve
    pockets of unemployment and underemployment during the pandemic.
  3. Entitle all kinds of migrants to flexible,
    accessible and nondiscriminatory health, social security and other welfare
    The Thai government should be encouraged to waive
    enforcement of Section 14 of the Foreigners’ Working Management Emergency
    Decree to allow those whose work permits expired due to unemployment between
    March and July 2020, and whose former employers failed to notify the
    authority, to extend the document and seek new employment without incurring
    additional processing fees. In addition, as the fishery sector does not
    require fishing operators to register migrants under the social security and
    health insurance systems, it is also encouraged that Thai government urge
    fishing operators to register migrant workers under both


  1. Boonlert, Thana.
    2020. “Help Urged for Migrant Workers in Limbo.” Bangkok
    , 26 July, 2020.
    (Accessed 22 August, 2020).
  2. Fawthrop, Tom.2020.
    “CoVID-19: Thailand’s Looming Second Wave.” The
    21 June, 2020.
    (Accessed 02 July,2020).
  3. Sandford, Steven. 2020.
    “Thailand’s Migrant Workers Struggle to Qualify for Aid During Pandemic.”
    VOA News, 17 June, 2020.
    (Accessed on 02 July,2020).
  4. International Labour
    Organization (ILO). 2019. “Triangle in ASEAN Quarterly Briefing Note.” ILO
    September 2019.—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/genericdocument/wcms_614383.pdf
  5. Thai PBS World Editorial, 2020. “Thailand’s GDP this year set to
    contract 7.8%-7.3 % not 5-6% previously forecast.” 17 August, 2020.
    (Accessed on 03 July 2020).
  6. The Thaiger Editorial.
    2020. “COVID-19 Hotline for Forgotten Migrant Workers.” 07 May, 2020.
    (Accessed on 22 August 2020).
  7. World Trade Organization.
    2020. “Trade set to plunge as COVID-19 pandemic upends global economy.” 08
    April, 2020.
    (Accessed on 03 July

  ——————————————— As the host
state’s political legitimacy is built on its ability to respect and protect
migrants against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, it will reduce its
marginal legitimacy when it fails to be one.

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