Labor in Thai Agriculture
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
|MOU||Border employment||Regularized (NV)|
|2 788 415
M = 56%
F = 44%
|1 005 848
|1 716 576
|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
|MOU||Border employment||Regularized (NV)|
M = 57%
F = 43%
M = 28 622
F = 20 752
M = 12 064
F = 9 872
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.
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
|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 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|
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||Rubber (n=98)||Palm (n=26)||Maize (n=151)||Sugarcane (n=250)||Total (n=525)|
|Documented, but not working legally||11.2||–||1.3||23.2||13.5|
|Legal working status||Surat Thani (n=108)||Tak (n=201)||Sa Kaeo (n=83)||Loei (n=133)||Total (n=525)|
|Documented, but not working legally||8.3||1.0||43.4||18.1||13.5|
|Legal working status||Cambodia (n=83)||Lao PDR (n=133)||Myanmar (n=309)||Total (n=525)|
|Documented, but not working legally||43.4||18.1||3.6||13.5|
|Legal working status||Male (n=230)||Female (n=292)||Other (n=3)||Total (n=525)|
|Documented, but not working legally||14.8||12.7||66.7||13.5|
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
|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|
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 (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)|
|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 (baht)||Male (n=221)||Female (n=274)||Other (n=3)||Total (n=498)|
|3 000–5 999||32.7||32.5||33.3||32.6|
|6 000–8 999||19.0||25.2||33.3||22.4|
|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
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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
|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|
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
|Wages deducted for||Rubber (n=76)||Oil palm (n=23)||Maize (n=33)||Sugarcane (n=135)||Total (n=267)|
|Social security contribution||–||–||–||0.7||0.4|
|Informal payments to police||11.8||–||3.0||1.5||4.5|
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