Thailand’s migrant workers at risk during pandemic – Asia Times

Thailand’s migrant workers at risk during pandemic

Thailand’s migrant workers at risk during pandemic

Migrant workers contribute significantly to the economic, social and cultural fabric of Thai societyBy ANDY HALLAPRIL 24, 2020

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Migrant workers pass the Thai-Myanmar border in an official service truck as they left Thailand from Mae Sot, Tak province in northern Thailand. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung PHOTO / Ye Aung Thu

Migrant workers pass the Thai-Myanmar border in an official service truck as they leave Thailand from Mae Sot in Tak province in northern Thailand. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Migrant workers in Thailand are among the most vulnerable as the country grapples with the Covid-19 crisis. The government, private sector and international supply-chain actors should act now to give them the protection they need – not only for their own safety and security, but also to help prevent the number of cases in wider Thai society spiraling out of control.

Why are migrant workers at risk?

  • Many live in crowded, unhygienic accommodation or dormitories where social distancing is challenging to implement.
  • They have limited access to protective equipment, including masks or sanitizer, and up-to-date prevention information because of language barriers and isolation.
  • Discrimination, a lack of resources and the fear of deportation mean they are less likely to be tested or treated.
  • Many have become jobless and are not yet eligible for state assistance, nor are they receiving unemployment or unfair-dismissal payments in practice. Re-employment options are scarce and changing employers is challenging. Food shortages and homelessness are therefore on the rise.
  • Migrant workers often lack freedom of movement because their passports are confiscated or because of their immigration status. They are therefore at greater risk of exploitation by corrupt officials and traffickers as they seek to return to their home countries or travel to find work irregularly and out of desperation. 
  • Border closures mean aspiring migrant workers already recruited, and those who returned home for document processing, are stranded in origin countries without employment, many heavily indebted and at risk of debt bondage.
  • Those working in factories producing key goods, such as gloves and other personal protective equipment, or canned or processed food, are unable to distance themselves physically on labor-intensive production lines. Infection risks are high, yet few are offered hardship benefits or incentives.
  • Migrant workers who manage to return home to their countries of birth often face discrimination and stigma.
  • Migrant workers across the world, and in Thailand also, are at increased risk of facing xenophobia and discrimination at this time as society grapples with this pandemic.

The wider impact

If the migrant community’s health is compromised and Covid-19 spreads quickly among the population, Thailand may struggle to contain the disease and prolong the wider public health, economic and social consequences for the country as a whole.

What should be done?

  • The Thai government should provide flexible, easily accessible and non-discriminatory health, social-security and additional welfare protections for migrant communities.
  • The private sector and employers should ensure migrant workers remain employed and healthy so that when the pandemic passes, a return to normal is feasible. Employers will thus avoid the need for new and expensive recruitment or labor shortages.
  • International buyers should take responsibility to bear part of the burden to ensure their suppliers are adhering to the highest standards and protecting migrant workers from poverty, ill-health and destitution.

Background

The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported there were nearly 2.8 million registered foreign migrant workers in Thailand in December 2019. But hundreds of thousands more – mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos – remain undocumented and are at greatest risk of exploitation. 

An estimated 200,000 migrant workers suddenly left Thailand in the days before Covid-19 movement restrictions were tightened and borders closed. Migrant workers contribute significantly to the economic, social and cultural fabric of Thai society.

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ATF

Andy Hall is a specialist in migrant worker rights based in Nepal who lived in Thailand from 2005 to 2016.

(17th Apr: The Telegraph) Don’t forget the people behind the PPE – migrant workers meeting the surge in demand for medical gloves

(17th Apr: The Telegraph) Don’t forget the people behind the PPE – migrant workers meeting the surge in demand for medical gloves

ANDY HALL

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/dont-forget-people-behind-ppe-migrant-workersmeeting-surge/

The plight of healthcare workers battling COVID-19 selflessly around the world, often without adequate personal protective equipment, has rightly been the focus of intense public debate and discussion.

But out of sight, exploited and putting their own lives at risk, likewise without adequate protection and with limited autonomy, are tens of thousands of migrant workers meeting the surge in demand for medical gloves.

It should not be a question of choosing between protection of healthcare workers, ramping up production of medical supplies and also ensuring essential supply chain workers are not exploited. All of these should be priorities in these desperate times – addressing vulnerability wherever it occurs.

The US Embassy in Malaysia tweeted on March 27th that ‘the world relies on Malaysia’ in the fight against COVID-19. The Embassy highlighted with gratitude how 65% of medical gloves used by ‘great American heroes’ and their counterparts worldwide were made in Malaysia.

The US had also, just days before, lifted sanctions imposed six months earlier on a Malaysian glove manufacturer suspected of forced labour, claiming its workers were no longer exploited.

Around the same time, the EU’s Ambassador to Malaysia piled on the pressure by urging Malaysian gloves manufacturers to get ‘creative’ to ensure 24/7 production to meet the EU’s urgent demand for gloves.

Yet little has changed in these extraordinary times for the 30,000 plus foreign migrants producing the estimated 200 billions gloves exported each year from Malaysia. These workers continue to toil, with meagre recompense, to produce most of the world’s gloves in conditions numerous investigations have shown meet many of the international definitions of forced labour.

Largely un-remediated recruitment costs of up to $5,000 paid by these workers for their dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs certainly contributes to their remaining in situations modern-day slavery for years already.

Like front-line health workers, these gloves workers are also now facing increased pressure and working hours, and an inability to take adequate rest, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world.

One gloves worker recently confided to me that he feared for his life by working at this time. But due to his financial situation, he had no choice but to work to save as much money as he could for his family’s survival.

Malaysia’s gloves manufacturers were quick in lobbying for a relaxation of Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdown rules meant to balance the risk of increased infections and protection for workers with the need for essential production. Malaysian glove factories have now therefore returned to full production and staffing.

Few would deny the importance of ramping up gloves production in Malaysia. Indeed, it is essential to protecting health workers globally and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic more effectively.

Meanwhile, raising exploitation for labourers working in essential supply chains, like in gloves factories in Malaysia, is surely sensitive. After all, a death toll of over 135, 000 people and infections above two million make clear we need to do everything we can to alleviate unprecedented global suffering.

Yet it should not be a question of choosing between increased production of medical supplies and protecting essential supply chain workers from exploitation. Both should be priorities in these desperate times.

Many gloves workers have got used to living years in cramped, unhygienic dormitories in rooms of up to 30 or 40 people. But they are now also at increased risk of contracting COVID 19 too – and rapidly spreading it.

Unnecessarily risking their own safety to make equipment to save the lives of others hardly seems fair.

Now more than ever we need concrete measures to combat this threat of exploitation and to protect these frontline supply-chain workers, who have no right in practice to refuse their dangerous work.

Firstly, the global medical supplies industry and governments buying gloves should use their leverage to support manufacturers to ensure they adhere to COVID-19 health and safety norms, as some are already doing. This is both to ensure protection for workers on the factory floor and in their accommodation.

Global for-profit companies and government regulators across the world should share burdens that arise in ensuring inspections and oversight are more rigorous than ever in this regard.

Secondly, unsung key workers like in the gloves sector should be offered hardship bonuses by companies able to bear this additional cost, given they have largely avoided the worst economic downturn of our times. Indeed, some companies are already leading the way.

One leading Malaysian gloves manufacturer has given foreign workers a 10% payrise for work during this pandemic and also committed to soon reimbursing all foreign workers recruitment fees. Workers at other gloves companies now report free food provisions.

Thirdly, gloves suppliers, buyers and governments must start to plan an industry-wide programme to pay back hefty recruitment fees that continue to keep glove workers in debt bondage and at high risk of forced labour.

Whatever the urgency of the current pandemic, now is not the time to turn a blind eye to the real risks faced by voiceless, impoverished and indentured workers producing the equipment we so desperately need.

We must all stand steadfastly by our commitments to combat modern-day slavery, ensure socially responsible public procurement and protect those most vulnerable, including those working in medical supply chains.

For just like the health workers they are supporting, gloves workers are working on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.

They are also some of the real heroes of our time.

Andy Hall is an independent British migrant worker rights specialist

Blog 13th Sep 2019: Stamping Out Modern Day Slavery from the EU’s Rubber Glove Supply Chains

By Andy Hall,
@atomicalandy & andyjhall1979@gmail.com

In 2014, Finnwatch and I first discovered rampant forced labour and exploitation of migrant workers toiling away in medical gloves factories in Malaysia and Thailand.

In late 2018, the Guardian published an investigation revealing forced labour from high recruitment fees and debt bondage at Top Glove, the world’s largest glove manufacturer in Malaysia supplying Britain’s National Health Service.

Despite some minimal improvements, it’s clear that modern day slavery in factories in Asia supplying basic hygiene and medical products to the EU remains systemic.

In 2018, an estimated 268 billion gloves were used globally, with an annual increase of 15% predicted. Ensuring a continuous supply of gloves, mostly manufactured in migrant labour-intensive factories in Thailand and Malaysia, is vital for maintaining public health and ensuring food safety.

Yet does our dependence on gloves and other hygiene, safety and medical products tainted by exploitation, and procured often cheaply so as to reduce taxation burdens, mean manufacturers or suppliers are exempt from combatting this abuse?

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16th July 2019: Responsible Migrant Worker Recruitment Practices: How to Move from Rhetoric to Reality

By Andy Hall

 

Given increasing interest globally in combatting forced labour and modern day slavery in global supply chains, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), Responsible Business Alliance (RBA), Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Humanity United come together today to host the workshop Driving Responsible Recruitment in Asia in Malaysia. The Malaysian Minister for Human Resources will present a key note speech at this event

 

Unethical recruitment is a key driver placing many migrant workers(indeed most workers migrating to Malaysia) in situations of forced labourparticularly as a result of debt bondage. Impoverished individuals continue to pay highly for dirty, dangerous and demeaning work within ASEAN during expensive and non-transparent recruitment processes  even for work at companies sourcing to global buyers claiming a commitment to ethical/zero cost” recruitment. 

 

There is currently much rhetoric but too little commitment of actual resources and genuine effort to ensure significant moves towards ethical recruitment for migrant workers. A lack of on the ground knowledge and experience how best to support ethical recruitment practices and concerning key factors that must be effectively addressed to ensure success is also impeding progress Electronics Watch’s practical guidance outlines steps to be taken to ensure ethical recruitment of migrant workers. But more than this useful guidance, a radical change of mindset and approach is also needed. 

 

As a priority, ethical recruitment models that seek to monitor and then control subagents or brokers involved in recruitment processes in origin countries need piloting. Registered subagents or broker, whether lawful or not under local laws, are an indispensable actor in most migrant recruitment channels linking workers from rural areas to agencies in capitals. Short timelines, complex recruitment processes and worker’s limited education necessitate that most migrants, even those processed by supposed ‘ethical’ recruiters, engage subagents or brokers during recruitment. 

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Finnwatch Press Release 22nd May 2019: Appeals Court orders British migrant rights defender Andy Hall to pay 10 million baht in damages to Thai pineapple company Natural Fruit

https://finnwatch.org/en/news/625-appeals-court-orders-andy-hall-to-pay-10-million-baht-in-damages-to-natural-fruit

The Prakanong Court in Bangkok, Thailand today read an Appeals Court’s verdict on Andy Hall’s appeal against a 2018 10 million baht (approx. 281 000 euros) civil defamation conviction, maintaining the lower court’s ruling and conviction. Andy Hall said today he will liaise with his legal defence team to appeal the ruling to Thailand’s Supreme Court but that he also remains open to reconciliation to end a continuing cycle of irrational litigation against him.

In March 2018, the Prakanong Court ordered Andy Hall to pay 10 million baht in damages to a Thai pineapple company, Natural Fruit Co Ltd, including an interest of 7.5% from the date of filing the case in 2013 until the amount was fully paid. The Court additionally ordered Hall to pay 10 000 baht (281 euros) towards Natural Fruit’s lawyer and court fees.

– We are shocked by today’s verdict. An Appeals Court already last year found that the findings in the Finnwatch report Cheap Has a High Price were well-founded. Now another Appeals Court has found Andy Hall guilty of civil defamation because he spoke about those findings to Al Jazeera. This makes no sense, said Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch.

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For Immediate Release 6th September 2018: Andy Hall’s Legal Defence Team Submits Appeal Against 10m Baht Civil Defamation ‘Aljazeera Interview’ Conviction Using €11,000 of Donated Funds

For Immediate Release 6th September 2018: Andy Hall’s Legal Defence Team Submits Appeal Against 10m Baht Civil Defamation ‘Aljazeera Interview’ Conviction Using €11,000 of Donated Funds

Today at 4pm (Bangkok time), Andy Hall’s legal defence team appealed Prakanong Court’s March 2018 10 million baht (€262,000) imposed fine & civil defamation ‘Aljazeera interview’ conviction to Thailand’s Appeals Court using €11,000 (422, 350 baht) donated by S Group and Freedom Fund with legal support fees from Freedom United and Solidarity Center.

An updated ‘Q&A on Civil & Criminal Prosecutions: Andy Hall vs. Natural Fruit’ providing background to the March 2018 10m baht civil defamation conviction and details of Andy Hall’s two criminal case acquittals and other outstanding civil cases is available at https://andyjhall.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/naturalfruitvsandyhallqa_may312018.pdf

The 422, 350 baht (€11,000+) deposited by Andy Hall’s legal team with the Prakanong Court today (donated with thanks S Group and Freedom Fund) was required to be deposited according to Thai Court regulations prior to Hall’s appealing the Mar 2018 10m baht civil Natural Fruit defamation conviction.