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Fearing Thailand's New Restrictions, Tens Of Thousands Of Migrant Workers Flee

Barrels of fish sit on a dock after being unloaded from a boat last year at the port in Songkhla, Thailand. Many migrants work in jobs in the country's seafood industry.
Paula Bronstein
Getty Images
Barrels of fish sit on a dock after being unloaded from a boat last year at the port in Songkhla, Thailand. Many migrants work in jobs in the country's seafood industry.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers have fled Thailand in the past week, fearing new labor regulations that the government announced last month.

"It's mainly workers from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia," reporter Michael Sullivan tells our Newscast unit. "Millions are working in jobs such as construction and the seafood industry — many of them undocumented, and easy prey for unscrupulous employers."

The new restrictions "include lengthy jail terms for workers without proper papers and hefty fines for their employers," Sullivan adds. Workers without the right documents could face five years in prison, according to the Thai newspaper The Nation.

In response to the sudden wave of migration, Thailand announced Friday that it will hold off implementing the new law for 120 days.

It's not clear exactly how many people have fled; officials and workers' advocates tell The Associated Press that about 30,000 workers left, while an Immigration Bureau official tells Reuters that the number is far higher, at 60,000.

This exodus has the potential to cause a labor shortage. "A new crisis will hit every sector of the Thai economy," Sompong Srakaew, director of the Labour Rights Promotion Network, tells The Nation. "For example, major construction projects will be halted since most laborers are migrants hired via subcontractors."

Part of the issue, Srakaew adds, is that many workers came to the country legally but switched to jobs outside the employer or job category listed on their work permits. He called on the government to "introduce additional measures to help those who already had some kind of document to work in the Kingdom," the newspaper reported.

Industry groups say they are already feeling the squeeze. "The private sector is in shock," Tanit Sorat, vice chairman of Employers' Confederation of Thailand, tells Reuters. "These are jobs that Thais will not do so if there is a labour shortage businesses cannot move forward."

At the same time, workers' advocates are concerned that some workers are being pushed out by businesses nervous about the restrictions. "We found that many workers were told to leave, some without being paid, by their employers," Patima Tungpuchayakul from the Labour Rights Promotion tells the AP.

In Myanmar, authorities have set up a temporary facility for the migrant workers streaming across the border, the Nation reports.

Thailand has long been under international scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers. As Sullivan reports, the new laws AIM to bring anti-trafficking efforts in line with international standards.

The U.S. State Department said in a report released last week that the country "does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," though it is making significant efforts.

Thailand has about 4 million migrant workers, some of them "forced, coerced, or defrauded into labor or sex trafficking."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.