The Thai cabinet on Tuesday approved a program to temporarily legalize undocumented workers from three other Southeast Asian countries, as a measure to stem the spread of the coronavirus amid a huge outbreak in one migrant labor community, officials said.
Foreign workers who are registered would be easier to track to ensure that they receive COVID-19 tests and are quarantined with adequate healthcare in case they become infected, according to officials.
The program would apply to undocumented migrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, who make up a majority of the foreign workforce in Thailand. Migrants approved under the program could work in Thailand legally for two years.
“Because the new wave of COVID involved mostly foreign workers and because the government investigated them to see how many were illegal, some employers got afraid and moved or abandoned their migrant employees. This widened the spread of the virus after the recent outbreak,” Trisulee Traisoranakul, a government spokeswoman, told reporters on Tuesday.
“Therefore, as a special case, the cabinet authorized the ministries of labor and interior to issue acts that would allow workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to work legally,” Trisulee said.
She was referring to a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand’s biggest seafood market-complex in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok – mostly among workers from Myanmar.
Since Dec. 17, infections from this cluster spread to more than 1,000 people in 43 provinces and metropolitan Bangkok, officials said. Until this outbreak, the Southeast Asian country had been among the least affected by the global pandemic.
Thailand reported 115 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, taking the total number of infections nationwide to 6,440, according to the government’s anti-COVID task force. Of the total, 1,381 cases were reported among migrant workers from the market cluster in Samut Sakhon.
According to government estimates, some 3 million documented foreign workers were in Thailand as of January 2020, but that number dropped to about 2.3 million as hundreds of thousands of migrants returned to their home countries due to COVID since March this year.
It is difficult to estimate how many undocumented migrant workers would benefit from the move to regularize them, said Suchart Pornwisetchaikul, director general of the Department of Employment.
“There were those who used to have permits, but about 400,000 expired from our system, while another group was never registered. We cannot tell how many they are,” Suchart told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, by phone.
Registration for undocumented workers from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar is scheduled to begin in mid-January.
Workers can sign up online from Jan. 15, 2021, until Feb. 13, 2021, to register with the Ministry of Labor. Applications can be filled in Thai or in one of the languages of the three neighboring countries.
The labor ministry will send these migrants’ names to the Ministry of Public Health, which in turn will also register the workers and conduct a health check on them.
The workers then have to enroll in a two-year health plan, because they would be approved to work until Feb. 16, 2023. The health plan will cost the workers or their employers 7,200 baht (U.S. $239), officials said.
Applications will be processed by September 2021, by which time the workers who are jobless would need to have found employers. After that, the foreign laborers have until Nov. 12 to register with the interior ministry.
Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a migrant worker advocate, said he had some concerns about this plan.
He estimates there could be as many as 80,000 undocumented migrant workers, and he fears the online system for their applications won’t be able to handle such a heavy load.
The employment department’s Suchart, however, said the online system had been in place for a long time and proved hardy enough to handle masses of data.
Adisorn also said there must be a mechanism to ensure that the undocumented workers are not arrested while their applications are being processed.
“The government must ensure that during this time there must not be arrests or prosecutions of foreign workers so they are not afraid,” said Adisorn, a coordinator with the Migrant Working Group, told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has ordered pubs, massage parlors, and sporting venues to shut shop from Dec. 29, 2020 to Jan. 4, 2021, amid the outbreak and as new strains of the coronavirus were reported in other countries.
People are still allowed to move from one province to another, but they have been advised to follow strict safety protocols.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.