The plight of Thailand’s migrant workers has been highlighted by two recent cases that have made headlines around the world.
Two men from Myanmar will stand trial later this month for the brutal murder of two British tourists on the resort island of Koh Tao.
Many believe the accused to be innocent, and widespread concerns have been raised about the police investigation amid allegations that the men were tortured into making confessions, which they later withdrew.
Meanwhile, British activist Andy Hall is facing prolonged legal action after alleging labor abuses in Thailand’s tinned fruit industry. Hall conducted research for a report, published by a Finnish NGO, which outlined cases of human trafficking, child labor, forced overtime, and violence against workers at a Natural Fruit Company factory.
The company is now suing Hall for defamation. Although a Bangkok court in October dismissed the first of four charges against him on a technicality, he faces up to seven years in prison and could be forced to pay millions of dollars in damages if found guilty of the other charges.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, slammed “this show of rich Thai elite businessmen suing advocates of worker rights.”
“In reality, none of these cases should have been considered for prosecution at all and the Thai government should be condemned for wasting tax-payer dollars in this effort on behalf of a rights-abusing private company,” he said.
There are an estimated two to three millions migrants from neighboring countries in Thailand, most of them undocumented and more than 80 percent of them from Myanmar, according to the International Labour Organization. Many have fled ethnic conflict, oppression and poverty at home.
Migrants make up around 10 per cent of Thailand’s workforce and are employed in a variety of sectors, including construction, agriculture, manufacturing, fishing and domestic work. In some sectors, such as seafood processing, they represent around 90 percent of the workforce.
Yet despite the vital contribution they make to the Thai economy, migrant workers too often face exploitation, low pay, and abusive working conditions. Often they are placed in jobs by illegal brokers and then have to pay back hundreds of dollars or more, meaning they are trapped in a form of bonded labor.
Many earn considerably less than the 300 baht ($9 dollars) a day minimum wage, and are forced to work longer than the eight hours a day mandated by law. They rarely get the one day off a week they are entitled to, and many are lucky to get even one day off a month, according to labor rights activists.
Work on construction sites and fishing boats can be dirty, dangerous and exhausting, and migrant workers are often at the mercy of abusive employers. Threats and intimidation are common, and beatings, rapes and killings have been reported by rights groups. In the fishing industry, where many migrant men and boys are literally sold by brokers, murder is said to be “obscenely common.” According to a 2009 United Nations survey, nearly 60 percent of 49 Cambodian men and boys trafficked to work on Thai fishing boats said they had witnessed a murder by the boat captain.
The U.S. State Department this year downgraded Thailand from Tier 2 to Tier 3, the lowest ranking, in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. “Burmese, Cambodian, and Thai men are subjected to forced labor on Thai fishing boats that travel throughout Southeast Asia and beyond; some men remain at sea for up to several years, are paid very little, are expected to work 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week, or are threatened and physically beaten,” it said.
Bizarrely, the Thai junta last week said that it would encourage prisoners to work on fishing boats, a proposal that was condemned as “dangerously irresponsible.”
Police rarely take complaints by migrant workers seriously, and employers and local authorities often restrict workers’ freedom of movement, in some cases banning the use of motorcycles or mobile phones. Following the double murder on Koh Tao in September, the provincial governor said authorities wanted to impose a 10 p.m. curfew for migrant workers.
Hall, the labor rights activist himself being prosecuted, is closely involved with the Koh Tao pair’s defense campaign. He told The Diplomat that the curfew was “all talk” and had not been enforced, but some law enforcement officials were using rumors to extort money from migrants.
Early on in the investigation, police focused their attention on the island’s migrant worker community, despite persistent rumors that a well-connected local man was involved in the murders. A senior officer revealed the rampant prejudice that is common in Thailand by telling the BBC that no Thai could possibly commit such a crime.
Migrants across the country live in fear of extortion by police, who frequently arrest them and demand money – often up to a month’s pay – for their release.
“Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of the Thai police beating and abusing migrant workers from neighboring countries, and discovered police have effective impunity to do so since there was hardly ever any effort by senior police commanders to hold their subordinates accountable,” says Robertson of HRW.
“In our  report ‘From The Tiger to the Crocodile: Abuses of Migrant Workers in Thailand,’ we actually recommended the Thai government should set up a national commission empowered to receive and investigate complaints of abuses against migrants, because we found it was virtually impossible for migrants and their families to receive justice from local police or authorities.
“This was not just in one part of the country, but appeared to be systematic across Thailand. In fact, Burmese and Cambodians who complained about ill-treatment at the local level by police or employers frequently faced swift and sure retaliation.”
The workers have few, if any, legal protections. Legally registered migrants are allowed to join labor unions, although they are not allowed to form their own. According to Hall, no more than a few hundred migrant workers in Thailand are union members.
The current military government has done little to assuage the fears of Thailand’s migrant workers and rights activists. The weeks after the May 22 military coup saw an exodus of Cambodian laborers amid rumors of an impending crackdown, after a spokeswoman for the Thai army said the junta viewed illegal migrants as a “threat” and they faced arrest and deportation. At least 246,000 fled across the border in just 18 days in June, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In September, the military government suggested that it might cut educational support to the children of migrant workers. The previous week, HRW had released a report detailing how thousands of migrant children are detained in squalid immigration facilities and police lock-ups every year.
Improving conditions for foreign workers is far down the list of the junta’s priorities, although it has attempted to improve the registration process for illegal migrants. For the majority, though, life is hard and will continue to be so – although they feel they have few other choices.
In Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, which is home to a large migrant worker community, they say that when people are taken to the Myanmar border and deported they often arrive back before the police.
Mark Fenn is a British journalist based in Thailand.