Thailand’s military government said it would delay enforcing new labor regulations after thousands of migrant workers fled home to neighboring countries this week fearing arrest and heavy fines under the new decree.
The scramble is the latest chaos triggered by Thailand’s efforts to regulate the millions of foreign workers who prop up its economy with jobs in factories, fishing boats and other low-paid work.
The junta has trumpeted a flurry of campaigns aimed at registering migrant workers and cracking down on illegal smuggling routes, but the efforts are often ad hoc and short-lived.
As a result, much of the migrant work force remains undocumented and vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers and unscrupulous employers.
The junta on Friday said it would suspend parts of a new foreign labor law, which came into effect on June 23, for 120 days after the regulations sparked a panic among migrant workers and their employers.
“[During this window] there will be no arrests or crackdown on illegal workers, except for those who violate human trafficking laws,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters.
The reprieve comes after thousands of workers fled home to neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia fearing arrest and fines of up to US$3,000 under the law, which punishes migrant workers lacking valid work permits.
Employers can also be fined up to 800,000 baht (US$23,578) for each undocumented worker they hire.
In Samut Sakhon, a seafood industry hub known as “Little Burma” for its concentration of Burmese migrant workers, about 500 workers have been returning home daily over the past week, said Suthasinee Kaewleklai of the Migrant Worker Rights Network.
“These workers don’t have any documents and have to return to Myanmar, as they fear needing to pay a heavy fine,” she told reporters.
The advocacy group also warned that traffickers frequently profit from such mass movements of migrants, with smugglers and border agents exacting fees from undocumented workers looking for safe passage home.
A police chief in Myanmar’s Karen State said about 6,000 migrant workers had returned home from Thailand since Thursday.
On the Cambodian border, the number of migrants streaming home has been increasing daily since the new law came into effect, Thai immigration officer Benjapol Robsawad said.
Since Wednesday, nearly 2,000 workers have crossed back to Cambodia through the Poipet checkpoint, he told reporters.
In 2014, about 250,000 Cambodians fled Thailand after fears that the newly installed junta government would arrest and deport undocumented workers. They slowly trickled back in the following weeks.
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