Bangkok, August 24:

Thailand will continue to attract migrant workers from its poorer neighbours due to the voracious appetite Thai employers have for such cheap labour, say labour rights activists and analysts.

“The Thai labour market is hungry for more and more workers everyday,” said Irena Vojackova-Sollorano, head of the International Organisation for Migration’s South-east Asia office, at the launch of a report on migrant labour here.

If the Thai economy continues to grow, “the labour market will be filled by migrant workers,” added Jerrold Huguet, co-author of the report, ‘International Migration in Thailand’, which was released today.

Just how favourable the climate is for migrant workers was reflected in the request made by Thai employers for 1.6 million workers during last year’s immigrant labour registration drive, states the 79-page report. But by December 2004, only 814,000 migrant workers of the nearly 1.3 million who had initially registered with Thailand’s labour authorities, had received work permits, the report adds.

Huguet attributes the drop to the many steps migrant workers have to go through, along with their prospective employers, to complete the process for getting work permits. The high cost of the permit is another factor. “The total fee of $95 required to obtain a one-year work permit is considered high by both employers and migrants,” the report states, “From the migrant worker’s perspective, the fee often represents close to a month’s wages for a one-year work permit.” The bulk of the unskilled foreign labour comes from military-ruled Burma, where poverty is rampant, followed by Cambodia and Laos.

During the most recent migrant-worker registration, nearly 80 per cent (or 610,106) of the 814,000 foreign workers who got permits were from Burma, followed by 104,789 from Cambodia and 99,352 from Laos. But labour rights activists estimate that the number of workers from Thailand’s three neighbouring countries could be much higher, with over one million from Burma alone, working as undocumented labourers.

The economic disparity between Thailand and its neighbours is stark. While the per capita income here is $2,238, Cambodia has a per capita income of $177, Laos has a per capita income of $317 and Burma $351. The work migrants do is described as dirty and dangerous and avoided by Thai workers. Thailand’s agriculture sector is heavily dependent on migrant labour, so too, is its fishing industry and the construction sector, the report states. Also, migrant workers work as domestic help in affluent Thai homes.

Nearly one in every five migrant workers is in the agriculture sector, while one in 10 is in the construction sector or in homes as domestic workers, says Sureeporn Punpuing, another co-author of the report. The significance of their contribution to the Thai economy is mirrored in the earnings recorded in the North-western province of Tak, where thousands of migrant workers are employed in the largely Thai-owned garment factories. During the 12-month period ending in 2003, the Federation of the Tak Industrial Chapter earned $125 million.

Monthly remittances by the migrant workers also reveals the scale of this sector. Close to $315 million is remitted every year by migrant workers to their home countries, states the report.

However, the flow of migrant workers to Thailand, which grew from a trickle to a flood in the late 1990s, has also generated concerns among migrant rights activists about the continuing wide-scale exploitation. Paying migrant workers less than the minimum daily wages, such as $3.47 per day in the Tak province, is commonplace, says Jackie Pollock of the Migrant Action Programme, a group lobbying for migrants’ rights in Thailand. And the victimised worker has no recourse to justice, she added.