Thailand: Migrant workers exploited amid floods, rights groups warn
Su Su raised an open palm, motioning a flat line above her chest.
“The waters came up to here,” she said.
For two weeks, Su Su, a Burmese migrant worker trapped in flooded Bangkok, watched as the dirty waters swelled, until they all but consumed her living quarters.
She’s now been homeless for more than two weeks, after the floods shut the compact disc factory where she worked. Yet, she feels like she’s one of the lucky ones—she actually escaped to a shelter Thai authorities have set up for displaced migrants. Others haven’t been so fortunate.
The rising floods that have inundated swathes of the Thai capital have also submerged entire districts and crushed the country’s economy.
But it’s migrant workers, part of the engine that powers Thailand’s robust manufacturing sector, who are among the hardest hit.
Migrant workers are already marginalized in Thailand at the best of times. But when the floods descended on Bangkok in recent weeks, they faced a new set of challenges—the threat of arrest, extortion and exploitation.
In one example rights workers say is indicative of a larger problem, a Thai immigration official extorted six Burmese migrant workers when they fled their submerged Bangkok homes last week.
The group had made it to Tak province in northwest Thailand, which borders Burma, where they hoped to wait out the floods. But rights groups say immigration officials instead pulled the migrants from their vehicle and accused them of being illegal aliens. Though all the migrants were working in Thailand legally, their work permits restricted their movements to areas around Bangkok. Rights groups say the officials only allowed the group to pass after they paid 300 baht each—about £6.
From there, the migrants say they were transported to a Thai broker, who demanded 1,000 baht each (£20) for their release. One woman who had hidden a mobile phone to call for help was slapped in the face by the broker, rights groups say.
Thai authorities have set up one shelter to house displaced migrant workers. The facility, on the outskirts of Bangkok, had room for roughly 500. But considering there are well over one million legally registered migrant workers in Thailand, observers say the government response falls far short of what is needed.
“It’s a drop in the ocean, really,” said Andy Hall, a consultant with the Human Rights and Development Foundation.
“There’s no real policy to address the issue, given the scale of the number of workers affected.”
Rights groups are calling for Thailand to issue an amnesty for unregistered migrant workers trapped by the floods, and to lift travel restrictions on registered workers.
In the meantime, the floods still threaten even those who made it to safe ground. Over the weekend, Su Su and hundreds of other migrant workers who thought they were safe, were once again displaced. Thai authorities say they were forced to shut down the centre and move it to a new location west of Bangkok, after creeping floodwaters threatened to overwhelm the area.
Photo: Displaced Burmese migrant workers wait in line to register for temporary documents at a Thai government-run shelter for migrant workers affected by the floods. The shelter has since been forced to move.