Stories of migrants in Thailand very often show construction and fishery workers or factory employees. However, migrants in the agriculture sector do not usually make the news. The lack of visibility happens, apparently, not only on media, but also in relevant policy and labour right documents and actions. This is, at least, one of the main conclusions of the research Migrant Agricultural Workers in Thailand, done by the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) and recently published.

Having long relied on migrants from neighboring countries, Thailand’s agriculture sector is increasing the number of workers and the share in Thai’s export volume, a fact that has not fueled research to understand the conditions these employees face. “Producing key information on agricultural migrants is key to assess the extent of the application of laws and other policies aimed at protecting these workers”, states Sokchar Mom, program manager of Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW). As member of the MMN, WeWorld-GVC’s partner contributed to the research project by providing technical input in data analysis and project consultation. Cambodian organizations working in the field of migrant labour rights protection were involved, as the survey focused on Cambodian and Myanmar workers, the most numerous group within the Thai agricultural sector.

From long working hours to verbal abuse and discrimination

The collaborative research was conducted from 2017 to 2019 and analysed the working and living conditions of the migrants employed in corn, cassava, palm oil and rubber plantations.

The research’s baseline hypothesis is confirmed by Mom, as the Network expected to find “a limited application of laws and other policies towards the protection of these workers, especially in wage payments, occupational health and safety measures and social security benefits”.

Agricultural migrants were found to experience longer working hours, unpaid wages, police raids and threats, as well as verbal abuse and discrimination. Wages are often not only not paid but also lower than in other industries, according to Mom, despite the fact that “the minimum wage was guaranteed under the Thai labour protection laws”.

Workers’ living conditions were also analysed in the research, reporting low quality housing structures and inadequate health and sanitation conditions. 28% of the interviewed migrants were without any healthcare coverage.

The research project also highlights a lack of legal status for 50% of the interviewees. “Most of the Cambodian agricultural migrants live near the border with Thailand and are seasonal workers”, explains Mom. LSCW has noticed that this type of workers prefer to go undocumented. The research sheds some light on the grounds for migrants to travel undocumented, a situation that increases their vulnerability.

The right to decent work 

Low skilled Cambodian migrants living in bordering regions with Thailand make the most common profile of agricultural workers in the neighboring country. They are, indeed, the main target participants in the WeWorld-GVC/LSCW RIGHT-TO-WORK project, which aims at protecting the labour rights of this type of migrants. “Promoting the labour rights of these workers will have a positive impact in the agriculture sector”, says Mom, as “communities can be empowered in order to advocate for their rights and the knowledge and skills required for migrating can be increased”. In fact, advocacy also plays a vital role in the migrant right protection arena. The MMN research includes a series of recommendations for the Thai government, employers, governments of countries of origin and Thai NGOs, covering several aspects, from labour inspections to law adoption/application and respect to labour rights. Organizations such as LSCW and WeWorld-GVC have lobbying at policy making level as one of their main activities. As Mom acknowledges, Cambodia, as a migrant sending country, “still has to work in simplifying recruitment processes, including the reduction of fees and the proper implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Cambodian and Thai governments”.

Read more about RIGHT-TO-WORK project here

Text and photo by Maria Jose Leon, supported by the EUAV program