Saturday, 17 August 2013

Myanmar Times: Myanmar workers face expiration of work visas

The Myanmar Times reports
Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, many of whom have been working legally in the country for decades, are facing an uncertain future in the coming weeks as their 4-year work visas expire.
Under a memorandum of understanding signed by both governments in 2009, migrants workers were able to apply for 2-year work visas, with the possibility of a two year extension after that.  Officials from the Thai Department of Labour reported that they did not have exact figures on the number of 4 year visas granted in 2009, but estimated that the number is in the hundred thousands. 
Now, these workers are faced with two options: return to Myanmar to being the costly and complex immigration process, or remain in country through illegal means, often at great personal risk. 
Several migrant activists interviewed for this article say that the move is just the latest in a long history of immigration officials on both sides of the border working to keep migrant labourers unsettled and vulnerable to exploitation.
"The actual policy is about the [Thai] government fear of migrants coming and settling for a long time and becoming part of the system.  They deliberately keep them for only short periods of time,"” said Ms. Jackie Pollack, program director of The Migrant Action Program, an advocacy group based in Chiang Mai.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar are now facing significant challenges in Thailand” said a statement released by the Migrant Workers Rights Network, “Workers are being tricked, exploited and extorted by Thai and Myanmar brokers, agencies and officials through misinformation about visa extensions or the need to return home and enter Thailand again through fresh and expensive unregulated MoU systems. Significant numbers of migrants are already paying up to 15, 000 Baht (US$500) for new passports, sometimes with new names, thereby forfeiting previously earned social security and labour protection rights and falling under situations of fresh debt bondage and passport confiscation.”
In an interview with The Myanmar Times, Ms. Pieng Pahp, an expert on alien workers with the Thai Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, said that given the important role unskilled migrant labor has and continues to play in Thailand's development, it was important for the to reform its laws in a way that allows the migrants to stay on a more permanent basis.
"However, such a law first needs to overcome the bureaucracy and general chaos of Thai politics.  “The Thai government is quite unstable, only two years ago we switched to [a different government], which led to a whole new cabinet we need approval from...whenever it changes we need to go back to the beginning and start our work again.”" 
She went on to say that before such cabinet approval can even come, new laws must first pass in the parliament.  “We have submitted the changes we want in the law to parliament...the law will change in the future, but it will take time...we are doing the best solution that we can manage.”
As for the charges of corruption, Ms. Pieng acknowledge that it was a very real obstacle to the reform she is seeking, “"How can you develop a country when corruption gets in the way?”" she said, “"We need to do things in an open, transparent way...who is behind [the corruption] is difficult to say, I don't know if its in the government or the police” or which country should take the blame".  
Daw Khin Wa Oo, head of the migrant affairs for the Department of Labour in Nay Pyi Taw, said that she and her collegues will be pressing for a reform to the law in the coming weeks, however no meeting is yet scheduled.  She said that while her department wants to protect the Myanmar workers abroad, they are ultimately at the mercy of the laws and regulations of the host country.  She denied having any knowledge of corruption on either side of the migration process.
Until such a change occurs, many more of the estimated 2 million Myanmar migrants in Thailand are likely to face the same situation as their visas expire in the coming months. 
“This is only the first group to reach this point,” said Ms. Pollack, “with the fees for the passport and the immigration corruption, they [will] end up paying at least 6 months and up to a year's worth of salary just to be here.”

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