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Labor in Thai Agriculture

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July 8, 2022

Almost 13 million people or 30 percent of Thailand’s 42 million strong labor force are employed in agriculture. Most of those employed in Thai agriculture are self-employed Thai farmers and their unpaid family members, but an increasing share are migrant workers from neighboring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

Some 318,000 migrants were employed in Thai agriculture in 2019, and these foreign farm workers were 11 percent of the 2.8 million migrants registered with the Thai government in December 2019. Two-thirds of registered migrant workers in Thailand were from Myanmar, a quarter were from Cambodia, and 10 percent were from Laos. Most of the 2.8 million registered migrants in Thailand were legalized under the nationality verification scheme between 2016 and 2018.

62% of the 2.8 million registered migrants in 2019 in Thailand legalized their status between 2016 and 2018

Number of documented migrant workers in Thailand, 2019
Total Entry/regularization arrangement
MOU Border employment Regularized (NV)
2 788 415
M = 56%
F = 44%
1 005 848
36%
65 991
2%
1 716 576
62%
Myanmar = 65%
Cambodia = 25%
Lao PDR = 10
Myanmar = 518 321 (52%)
Cambodia = 303 971 (30%)
Lao PDR = 183 460 (18%)
Myanmar = 26 095(40%)
Cambodia = 39 896 (60%)
Myanmar = 1 276 512 (74%)
Cambodia = 342 562 (20%)
Lao PDR = 97 502(6%)

Almost two-thirds of the registered migrant farm workers in 2019 were from Myanmar

Number of documented migrant workers in agriculture, December 2019
Total Entry/regularization arrangement
MOU Border employment Regularized (NV)
317 996
M = 57%
F = 43%
49 374
M = 28 622
F = 20 752
21 936
M = 12 064
F = 9 872
246 686
M = 139 220
F = 107 466
Myanmar = 63%
Cambodia = 26%
Lao PDR = 11%
Myanmar =12 213
Cambodia = 17 064
Lao PDR = 20 097
Myanmar = 877
Cambodia = 21 059
Myanmar = 186 668
Cambodia = 44 590
Lao PDR = 15 428

Low-skilled migrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar can migrate legally to Thailand under MOUs. In border provinces, Thai employers can recruit migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia to work under renewable three-month contracts.

A 2018 ILO survey of 528 migrant farm workers who were employed to produce corn, palm oil, rubber and sugarcane found that almost 60 percent did not earn the Thai minimum wage of 305 baht ($9) for an eight-hour day or 7,320 baht ($212) for a 24-day work month. The share of migrant workers who did not receive the minimum wage varied by province, and was very high in Tak province on the Burmese border.

One reason why migrants are not paid the minimum wage is that Thailand’s Labor Protection Act covers only hired farm workers who are employed full time for at least a year, which the ILO estimates covers only eight percent of migrant farm workers in Thailand. This means that 92 percent of migrant farm workers in Thailand are covered by a ministerial regulation that does not require paying the minimum wage, overtime wages after 48 hours a week, or holiday and vacation pay. Over 95 percent of migrant farm workers reported that they worked more than eight hours a day.

The migrant workers who were interviewed paid an average 6,448 baht ($187) to migrate to Thailand, which makes their migration costs equal to one month’s median wage, 6,000 baht. A 2020 ILO survey of 1,200 migrant workers in nonfarm jobs found that average migration costs were $461 and ranged from $517 for Cambodians to $503 for Laotians and $394 for Burmese, which was 2.5, 2.3, and 1.4 months of Thai earnings, respectively.

Agriculture. Thailand is a country of 66 million with a GDP per capita of $7,500. The most important farm commodity is rice, which is grown on half of Thailand’s farm land and is the most important agricultural export. Thailand is also an important producer and exporter of sugar, palm oil, cassava, and rubber, as well as tropical fruits, chicken, fish, and seafood.

Thailand is a major food exporter

The Thai government encouraged farmers to switch from producing rice to sugarcane, and encouraged the expansion of rubber plantations in the northeast, leading to overproduction and falling prices.

Rice (yellow) is planted on about half of Thailand’s farm land

Rubber is second to rice in land area planted, and some five million tons was produced in 2018, when Thailand was the world’s leading exporter of natural rubber. Most rubber farms are small operations that hire workers to tap rubber trees, collecting the liquid in buckets and molding it so that it dries into sheets that are processed.

In southern Thailand, rubber tappers are often independent contractors who receive 40 percent of what farmers are paid by rubber processors, while in other areas rubber tappers are paid by piece rates or by the day. Falling rubber prices and thus falling piece rates mean that Thai workers shun rubber tapping jobs.

Palm oil occupies six percent of Thai farm land and yields over 11 million tons a year. Hired workers harvest palm oil fruits from the tops of trees that are transported to mills that extract the oil.

Thailand produces about 100 million tons of sugarcane from 1.2 million hectares. Sugarcane competes with rice and cassava for land, and some of 200,000 to 300,000 farmers who normally grow sugar cane may switch to other crops in 2022-23 due to high fertilizer prices. Most Thai sugar is exported, although the government wants to use some sugarcane to make ethanol.


Source: https://www.fas.usda.gov/data/thailand-sugar-annual-6

ILO Survey. Some 528 migrant farm workers, over half women, were interviewed in 2018, including 311 from Myanmar, 134 from Laos, and 83 from Cambodia. The Burmese were interviewed in Tak province (sugarcane and corn) and Surat Thani (rubber and palm oil), the Laotians in Loei (sugarcane), and the Cambodians in Sa Kaeo (sugarcane). Almost half of those interviewed worked in sugarcane, followed by 30 percent in corn and 20 percent in rubber.

Over half of the migrants interviewed were women, and 45% were Burmese women who worked in sugarcane

Breakdown of migrant workers surveyed, by crop, country of origin and sex
Location Total (women) Crop Country of origin
Sugarcane (women) Maize (women) Rubber (women) Oil palm (women) Cambodia (women) Lao PDR (women) Myanmar (women)
Tak 203 (126) 40 (27) 150 (92) 2 (2) 11 (5) – (–) – (–) 203 (126)
Loei 134 (67) 134 (67) – (–) – (–) – (–) – (–) 134 (67) – (–)
Surat Thani 108 (57) – (–) – (–) 95 (48) 13 (9) – (–) – (–) 108 (57)
Sa Kaeo 83 (42) 77 (38) 3 (2) 1 (1) 2 (1) 83 (42) – (–) – (–)
Total 528 (292) 251 (132) 153 (94) 98 (51) 26 (15) 83 (42) 134 (67) 311 (183)
% of total 100% (55.3%) 47.5% (45.2%) 29.0% (32.2%) 18.6% (17.5%) 4.9% (5.1%) 15.7% (14.4%) 25.3% (22.9%) 58.9% (62.7%)

Almost half of the migrants interviewed had no formal education or were illiterate

Educational attainment of migrant workers surveyed, by country of origin and gender (%)
Educational level Total (n=528) Country of origin Gender
Cambodia (n=83) Lao PDR (n=134) Myanmar (n=311) Male (n=233) Female (n=292) Other (n=3)
Cannot read and write 18.0 45.8 18.4 15.9 19.9
No formal education 30.7 41.0 38.8 24.5 32.2 29.6 33.3
Some primary school 36.1 10.8 61.2 31.9 36.5 35.4 66.7
Secondary school 12.0 2.4 19.7 11.2 12.7
University 2.3 3.9 3.4 1.4
Other 1.0 1.6 0.9 1.0

Two-thirds of the migrants interviewed were lawfully employed in Thailand. The largest share, 34 percent, legalized their status under nationality verification, meaning that they received documents in Thailand from authorities in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar that verified their citizenship in these countries. Another 14 percent entered under the MOUs, and 13 percent were employed under a border-area program that allows Thai farmers to recruit migrants from neighboring countries for three months.

2/3 of all migrant farm workers, and 2/3 of Burmese migrants, were documented

Legal working status of migrant worker respondents by crop sector (%)
Legal working status Rubber (n=98) Palm (n=26) Maize (n=151) Sugarcane (n=250) Total (n=525)
Documented workers 86.7 100.0 56.3 61.6 66.7
Documented, but not working legally 11.2 1.3 23.2 13.5
Undocumented 2.0 34.4 13.2 16.6
Stateless card 8.0 2.0 3.2

 

Legal working status of migrant worker respondents by province (%)
Legal working status Surat Thani (n=108) Tak (n=201) Sa Kaeo (n=83) Loei (n=133) Total (n=525)
Documented workers 89.8 52.7 47.0 81.2 66.7
Documented, but not working legally 8.3 1.0 43.4 18.1 13.5
Undocumented 1.9 38.3 9.6 16.6
Stateless card 8.0 0.8 3.2

 

Legal working status of migrant worker respondents by country of origin (%)
Legal working status Cambodia (n=83) Lao PDR (n=133) Myanmar (n=309) Total (n=525)
Documented workers 47.0 81.2 65.7 66.7
Documented, but not working legally 43.4 18.1 3.6 13.5
Undocumented 9.6 25.4 16.6
Stateless card 0.8 5.2 3.2

 

Legal working status of migrant worker respondents by gender (%)
Legal working status Male (n=230) Female (n=292) Other (n=3) Total (n=525)
Documented workers 68.7 65.4 33.3 66.7
Documented, but not working legally 14.8 12.7 66.7 13.5
Undocumented 13.9 18.2 16.6
Stateless card 2.6 3.8 3.2

The ILO survey reported that a third of migrants found Thai farm jobs via friends and relatives, a sixth were recruited by a Thai farm employer, and a quarter migrated to Thailand without knowing where they would find work.

Most migrants found Thai jobs via family and friends or on their own

Distribution of migrant worker respondents by method of recruitment
Method of recruitment % No.
Friends or family brought me 36.7 194
Independently/on my own 25.8 136
Direct recruitment by an employer 17.8 94
Individual broker 16.1 85
Recruitment agency 3.2 17
Other 0.4 2 1
Total 100.0 528

Migration costs, including travel, broker and agency fees, and passports, visas, border passes, work permits, health exams, and various formal and unformal registration fees, averaged 6,448 baht or $187, about a month’s Thai earnings.

Laotian migrants who arrived legally in Thailand had the highest migration costs

Cost of migration paid by migrant workers, by country of origin and crop (%)
Cost of migration (baht) Total (n=528) Country of origin Crop
Cambodia (n=83) Lao PDR (n=134) Myanmar (n=311) Rubber (n=98) Oil palm (n=26) Maize (n=153) Sugarcane (n=251)
No cost 9.1 9.6 3.7 11.3 0.00 3.9 13.1 10.8
<1 000 18.0 24.1 1.5 23.5 3.1 38.6 13.2
1 000–4 999 28.8 44.6 2.2 36.0 28.6 61.5 38.6 19.5
5 000–9 999 15.0 10.8 29.1 10.0 23.5 7.7 2.6 19.9
10 000– 75 000 26.7 7.3 63.4 16.1 40.8 26.9 3.3 35.5
Do not know 2.5 3.6 3.2 4.1 3.9 1.2

The Burmese workers in Tak province were most likely to be unauthorized and to earn less than the minimum wage. Over 95 percent of the migrants interviewed in Tak earned less than 7,320 baht a month, including 40 percent who earned less than 3,600 baht a month.

Male migrants earned 1,000 baht ($29) a month more than female migrants

Monthly income of migrant worker respondents, by gender (%)
Monthly income (baht) Male (n=221) Female (n=274) Other (n=3) Total (n=498)
<3 000 5.4 14.6 10.4
3 000–5 999 32.7 32.5 33.3 32.6
6 000–8 999 19.0 25.2 33.3 22.4
>9 000 42.2 27.7 33.3 34.2
Mean monthly income 8 301 7 305 7 867 7 750
Median monthly income 7 000 6 000 8 000 6 000

Sugarcane workers had the highest wages, an average of over 10,000 baht a month. By contrast, corn offered the lowest earnings.

Sugarcane and rubber offered the highest monthly earnings

Mean, maximum and minimum monthly incomes reported by migrant workers, by crop sector and gender (n=498)
Rubber
Monthly income Male (n=46) Female (n=51) Other (n=1) Total (n=98)
Mean income 9 087 7 978 8 000 8 499
Minimum income 3 500 2 500 8 000 2 500
Maximum income 20 000 15 000 8 000 20 000
 
Oil palm
Monthly income Male (n=11) Female (n=15) Other (n=0) Total (n=26)
Mean income 5 782 5 507 n/a 5 623
Minimum income 3 000 1 000 n/a 1 000
Maximum income 10 000 10 000 n/a 10 000
 
Maize
Monthly income Male (n=59) Female (n=92) Other (n=0) Total (n=151)
Mean income 3 679 3 545 n/a 3 598
Minimum income 1 500 1 800 n/a 1 500
Maximum income 9 000 12 000 n/a 12 000
 
Sugarcane
Monthly income Male (n=105) Female (n=116) Other (n=2) Total (n=223)
Mean income 10 817 10 224 7 800 10 481
Minimum income 1 200 640 5 600 640
Maximum income 40 000 59 600 10 000 59 600

Cutting sugarcane is the most difficult job filled by migrants

Wage systems varied by commodity. Migrants in rubber typically received a share of grower revenue, migrants in corn were paid a daily wage, and migrants in sugarcane were paid piece rate wages that reflected how many tons of cane they cut.

Most sugarcane workers were paid piece rate wages

Means by which migrant workers’ wages are determined, by crop sector (%)
Wage determination Rubber (n=98) Oil palm (n=26) Maize (n=151) Sugarcane (n=250) Total (n=525)
Daily flat rate 2.0 50.0 81.1 13.9 33.0
Monthly flat rate 7.1 3.9 5.9 0.8 3.6
Piece rate (flat rate by amount) 4.1 0.7 74.5 36.4
Mix of daily/monthly rate and piece rate 1.0 4.6 8.0 5.3
Percentage share of crop 84.7 38.5 3.9 2.4 19.9
Weekly/bi-weekly 1.0 7.7 2.6 1.3

Thailand allows employers to pay for worker documentation costs and legalization fees and deduct these costs from worker wages. Many migrants ask for wage advances, which employers also deduct from worker earnings. Half of the migrants interviewed had deductions from their wages, including a third who had wage deductions during their entire period of employment in Thai agriculture.

½ of migrants had deductions from their wages, most often for utilities and documentation

What wage deductions were for, by sector (%)
Wages deducted for Rubber (n=76) Oil palm (n=23) Maize (n=33) Sugarcane (n=135) Total (n=267)
Uniforms/clothing
Tools/equipment 1.3 4.4 3.0 38.5 20.6
Food/drinking water 6.6 21.2 28.2 18.7
Housing 9.2 4.4 9.1 1.5 4.9
Electricity/water 73.7 95.7 72.7 6.7 41.6
Health services 2.6 21.7 12.1 19.3 13.9
Social security contribution 0.7 0.4
Recruitment fees 1.3 4.4 2.6
Document costs 6.6 43.5 12.1 31.1 22.9
Informal payments to police 11.8 3.0 1.5 4.5
Loans 2.6 13.0 3.0 20.0 12.4
Fertilizer fee 13.2 3.8
Transportation fee 4.0 1.1
Border pass 4.4 5.2 3.0
Other 1.3 4.4 5.2 3.4

Over 85 percent of the migrants reported that they received housing at no cost from their employers, although migrants employed in seasonal crop tasks in sugarcane and corn were often provided with building materials to build their own housing on the farm. Some 30 percent of migrants experienced workplace problems, typically unpaid wages, long work hours, and employer retention of personal documents.

Perspective. The Thai government has struggled to manage the migration of low-skilled workers from neighboring lower-wage countries. One overriding principle of Thai policy is to avoid having migrant workers become immigrants and eventually Thai citizens. However, most migrants are employed in year-round jobs and by employers who see little prospect of replacing migrants with Thais, leading to migrant settlement, family formation, and children born in Thailand to migrant parents.

The Thai government appears to tolerate sometimes poor treatment of migrants until internal and external pressures force new regulations and their enforcement. This occurred in fish and seafood, where reports of migrant worker abuse threatened export markets and led to reforms that improved recruitment, wages, and safety and health protections for migrants.

The ILO has been monitoring migrants in Thai fishing and seafood

References

ILO. 2022. Working and employment conditions in the agriculture sector in Thailand: A survey of migrants working on Thai sugarcane, rubber, oil palm and maize farms.

ILO. 2020. Endline research findings on fishers and seafood workers in Thailand.


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