Thailand’s Migrant and Farm Worker Crisis

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The curfew is gone! World Cup games are being broadcast for free by order of the military junta to “return happiness to the people!” And yet, there’s a new major crisis rocking the economy here. 

Putting on my news hat for a minute to share some of the more interesting things I’ve read lately. Namely this: Rumors of military violence against Cambodians has migrant workers of all stripes bolting for the border — and the junta is scrambling to do some serious damage control.

Check out the splash photo from the Bangkok Post’s front page on Tuesday: hoards of mostly Burmese workers crowding train stations, trailing all of their belongings. It’s a good primer.

In a nutshell, there are 2.3 million migrant workers in Thailand who work in construction and on farms. Unemployment in Thailand is about 1 percent, so the country absolutely relies on these workers. They do all the hard labor that Thais aren’t interested in doing. The vast majority of the workers, 1.7 million, are from Myanmar, the others from Laos and Cambodia. (These stats are all from the Bangkok Post.)

A few weeks ago, rumors started circulating in the Cambodian community that Thai military officers had detained, beaten and killed several Cambodian migrant workers. Families back in Cambodia heard this and implored their sons and husbands to ditch their work and come home. 

Concurrently, the junta has made new moves to regulate migrant workers. They suddenly have asked employers to provide the names of all the workers they employ, legal and illegal. The reason given is that the military wants to stop child labor abuse and human trafficking. Good reasons, but even so, given the Cambodian reports from NGOs, everyone is spooked. 

The government has offered its assurances, but to no avail. Construction workers walked away from job sites, leaving shells of unfinished buildings behind. Farm workers have taken off too, although it’s the monsoon season so there’s still time for the situation to settle before the planting season.

While we’re talking about local news headlines, I’ve noticed many articles lately in the Bankgok Post about new anti-corruption initiatives, essentially, crackdowns on lavish perks at government boards and agencies. And another story headlined: “Citizen duties to be taught ‘intensively‘”, about immediate national curriculum changes to “help encourage students to learn their duties and responsibilities for the sake of the nation and to bring about reconciliation and unity in the country.” Interesting timing.

One last tidbit. Jumping back to the World Cup. We have not fully adjusted to Bangkok time, partly on purpose: World Cup games run from 11 p.m. through 7 a.m., so Karl stays up through part of the 1st game, misses the second, and wakes up by 5 a.m. to catch the kickoff for the third game, the last scheduled match of the day.

The reason he/we can watch the games for free on TV is because the junta unilaterally declared it would be that way after the government lost a lawsuit over the games with private broadcasters. Someone had also allegedly put it out there on Twitter that if the junta really wanted to make the people happy, they’d let everyone watch the World Cup games for free. Lo and behold, a week or so later that’s what happened!

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