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January 2007, Volume 14, Number 1

Southeast Asia

Thailand. Some 200,000 migrants have work permits due to expire February 28, 2007, and another 460,000 have permits expiring on June 30, 2007. The Thai press reported there were 668,756 registered migrants in December 2006, when the Thai government announced that these work permits could be extended for another year between January 10 and June 30, 2007. Currently unauthorized workers can also register for the first time.

Under MOUs between Thailand and Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, the Thai government allows migrants to register and work legally; the migrants' country of origin is to issue documents to confirm migrant identities. Some 760,000 Burmese registered with the Thai Department of Employment in 2006, and they now await Burmese documents; another 70,000 Laotian and Cambodian workers in Thailand registered in 2006, and most have received documents.

One report said that Burmese who had worked at least two years in Thailand could register for another two years, but would then have to leave Thailand after four years.

Migrants pay 1300 baht when they register for health care, but many do not obtain health care services because they cannot obtain services in their own language.

Migrant advocates say that factory owners are increasingly hostile, accusing them of fomenting trouble when they ask to enter dorms and educate workers on health care and other issues. An ILO-UNIFEM poll released December 18, 2006 found that 59 percent of Thais do not want more migrant workers, agreeing that migrants increase unemployment and reduce wages. Only 40 percent of those polled thought migrants should receive the same wages as Thais, with many noting that migrants earned more in Thailand than they could at home. Two-thirds of those polled do not think migrants should be able to choose their jobs in Thailand, and 77 percent support current Thai law that does not allow non-Thais to join unions.

An account of Burmese migrants in Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province highlighted the vulnerability of migrants without work permits. With work permits, migrants can change employers and receive health care. However, even with work permits, some employers allegedly require migrants to work long hours for 185 baht a day, and to pay rent for accommodation in dorms (wages in Burma are reported to be 150 to 200 baht a month).

Burmese migrants can pay brokers 2,500 baht to bring them to Thailand, but more often they accompany relatives with jobs in Thailand as they return from visits home. The three major border-crossing points are Ranong, the Three Pagodas Pass (in Kanchanaburi) and Mae Sot (in Tak).

The Thai government signed an MOU with Burma in August 2005 that required illegal Burmese in Thailand to return to Burma and have their nationality verified.

In July 2005, the Thai government decreed that all children in the country had the right to an education. When migrant children are enrolled, they receive uniforms and Thai names.

Mahidol University's Institute for Population and Social Research interviewed 700 migrants, mostly Burmese, for the study, "The Mekong Challenge - Underpaid, Overworked and Overlooked: The realities of young migrant workers in Thailand." About 60 percent of the migrants employed as domestic helpers were not allowed to leave the homes in which they were employed, and 43 percent of migrants employed in agriculture, fishing and manufacturing reported that their employers kept their identity cards to restrict their movement, although some migrants reported that they used cell phones to communicate.

The report makes 29 recommendations, including that the government educated Thais about the ways in which the presence of migrants benefits Thais.

Most OECD countries have imposed sanctions on Burma, but China, India and many southeast Asian nations are stepping up their trade and investment. The Burmese military government in power since 1988 is stepping up efforts to bring the three-million strong Karen minority, which has in the past had some autonomy, under government control. Estimates of the number of Karen in Thailand range from 150,000 to 1.5 million.

Trans Bay Steel Corp. of Napa brought 48 Thai welders to the US who were sent to Los Angeles-area restaurants, where they were forced to work long hours for low pay. Trans Bay says that it was duped by Kota Manpower Inc. of Thailand, which induced it to sponsor more Thai workers than needed for welding and enslaved them. Trans Bay, which agreed to pay $1.4 million in December 2006 to settle the case, said it asked Kota to provide 10 welders at $19 an hour. The Thai workers paid Kota $12,500 for the US jobs.

Most of the workers will receive up to $7,500, and 17 got T-visas under a 2000 federal law that allows them to stay in the United States for three years and then apply for legal permanent residency in exchange for helping the government prosecute the traffickers.

Malaysia. The government announced that to minimize conflicts, new foreign workers would have to take a half-day course in their country of origin on Malaysian law and culture before obtaining work permits. There are 1.8 million foreigners with work permits in Malaysia, including 1.2 million registered Indonesians.

Indonesia. Indonesia aims to increase deployments from the current 450,000 a year to 1.5 million. Indonesia's 2004 Migrant Worker Protection Law requires the implementation of six government regulations, two presidential regulations and nine ministerial decrees, but only one presidential regulation and two ministerial decrees were issued as of December 2006. Migrant advocates say that the slow pace of implementing regulations is deliberate, and point to the fact that the independent labor export agency mandated by the legislation has not been established.

Presidential Decree No.81/2006 on the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers Abroad requires that migrants be trained before they depart; there are 246 migrant training centers in Indonesia.

The Indonesian Labor Exporters Association (Apjati) and the Indonesian Manpower Development Association (Idea) complained about a 2006 government policy that requires labor exporters to have a minimum capital of Rp 3 billion and to pay a Rp 500 million deposit to the government. According to recruiters, workers must spend Rp 2 to 3 million to get needed documents to go abroad.

Indonesia continues to struggle with high unemployment. By the end of 2006, an estimated 11 percent of Indonesia's workers, 11.6 million people, were jobless, and another 45 million were underemployed, working less than 35 hours a week.

Philippines. The Asian Development Bank released a report in November 2006, "Converting Migration Drains into Gains," that warned the Philippines to avoid a brain drain, which it defined as emigration that leads to a fall in average-per-worker income. The Philippines received $10.6 billion in remittances in 2005, and expects $11.8 billion in 2006.

The Commission on Filipinos Overseas said it would step up efforts to root out illegal recruitment after illegal Filipinas were reported to have jumped to their deaths to escape abusive employers in Lebanon. Most of the Filipinos who were returned with government assistance during fighting in summer 2006 were unauthorized.

Labor Secretary Arturo Brion announced that, beginning in 2007, Filipina domestic helpers must be paid at least $400 a month abroad, up from the current $200 minimum wage. Filipina maids are not to be charged placement and other recruitment-related fees, and those going abroad are to be at least 25, up from the current 21.

Filipinas going abroad as domestic helpers must in 2007 have a certificate from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) attesting to their housekeeping skills and a certificate from the Overseas Workers' Welfare Administration showing that they completed a course covering the language and culture of the destination country.

Filipino maids are paid HK$3,400 (US$425) a month, and their employers must pay a HK$400 a month levy to the Hong Kong government. Salaries are lower in Singapore, about $200 a month, but employers must pay a larger levy for the privilege of employing foreign maids, S$345 a month. Maximum placement fees are supposed to be one month's salary plus P5,000($100), but many maids pay up to US$2,000 for 24 month contracts to work in nearby Hong Kong.

The government is trying to attract foreign investment to special economic zones, to reduce unemployment, 2.9 million in early 2006, and underemployment, 8.4 million. The minimum wage in Central Luzon is about $5 a day. The poverty line is about $250 per person a year, and a quarter of Filipinos have incomes below the poverty line.

As they buy condos in Manila, Filipino Americans and other overseas Filipinos are helping fuel a property boom there. Prices in Manila's Makati central business district have risen over 10 percent in the past two years, and are expected to keep rising.

Vietnam. The number of Vietnamese going abroad to work for up to two years is rising, and more are reporting abuses at the hands of employers abroad. Some of the worst abuses have been reported by domestic helpers in Taiwanese homes, where labor laws do not apply. After reports of workers being forced to work up to 18 hours a day in private homes, Taiwan strengthened protections for domestic helpers in 2006.

There were 71,000 legal Vietnamese migrants in Taiwan in December 2006, and another 10,000 Vietnamese "runaways," workers who left the employer to whom they were assigned.

Many Vietnamese pay $5,000 or more for contracts that promise 24 months of work at $400 a month, or half of the $9,600 they expect to earn. Employers know that the migrants do not want to return to face their debts, and many take away migrants' passports and cell phones to keep them from running away.

Vietnam became the 150th member of the World Trade Organization in November 2006, capping a 20-year drive to integrate into the world economy. Like China and India, Vietnam has benefited from the return of those who went abroad, learned English, gained entrepreneurial experience and acquired technical skills.

Foreign investors are led by those from Taiwan, Singapore and the US. The US and Vietnam normalized trade relations in 2001, and trade has expanded to $8 billion a year, with Vietnam exporting far more than it imports. The US regards Vietnam as a non-market economy, which makes it easier for US producers to file dumping charges, as they have for catfish and shrimp.

K. Oanh Ha, "Vietnamese migrant workers in Taiwan face growing abuse," San Jose Mercury News, December 14, 2006. Teresa Watanabe, "Trafficking case ends for 48 Thai welders," Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2006. Ridwan Max Sijabat, "Private firms attack labor export reforms," Jakarta Post, November 06, 2006.