BANGKOK - Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Monday (March 5) threatened to arrest hundreds of thousands of migrant workers if they fail to register themselves with the authorities by June 30, The Nation newspaper reported.
Mr Prayut also criticised the Labour Ministry for what he considered "sluggish management" of the process.
He reacted angrily after he learnt that the registration process had been going slow due to insufficient numbers of retina-scanning machines used to help verify the nationalities of migrant workers.
"Why can't you buy them? This should have been done in our last lives," Mr Prayut shouted, slamming his fist on the table during a visit to a coastal province on Monday, reported The nation.
"If it's not finished by June, no more exceptions will be made. If they (migrant workers) can't be registered in time, they will have to be arrested," Mr Prayut said.
The registration process is part of the government's drive to provide legal and humanitarian assistance to migrant workers, a large majority of them from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia who work across the industries of fishing and construction.
Implementation of the law, initially set to be enforced in 2017, was postponed by a junta order following a drastic demographic shift as migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, returned to their home countries, eliciting concerns from the private sector.
An estimated 698,675 workers have until June 30, when the law is to be enforced, to register, which will allow them to stay in the country for another two years.
About 988,798 migrant workers had already had their nationalities verified, including 784,091 Myanmar people, 157,232 Cambodians and 47,475 Laotians, said Mr Anurak Thossarat, chief of the Labour Ministry's Employment Department, according to The Nation.
Migrant workers who fail to register themselves by the deadline face imprisonment and fine.
The law entails fines of 400,000 baht (S$16,812) to 800,000 baht for each illegal migrant worker, to be paid by employers, while the workers could face five years in prison, fines of 2,000 baht to 100,000 baht, or both.
"I would like to ask people not to oppose the government in its law enforcement. We had better cooperate. I can't allow it if officers can't finish their jobs in time," Mr Prayut said on Monday during his visit to Samut Sakhon, a coastal province in Thailand's lower Central region, which is a hub of the fishing industry.
Mr Prayut met with authorities, migrant representatives and non-government organisation (NGO) workers to follow up on the registration process, according to The Nation.
The province hosts a major Myanmar community that is involved in the industry and is a special area of focus in monitoring illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, including inspections of workers' living and working conditions on and offshore.
The government has set up special monitoring centres and upgraded regulations to address IUU fishing issues, which affects Thailand's human rights image and trade relations with the international community.
Since 2015, Thailand has been issued a "yellow card" warning by the European Commission (EC) for failing to take sufficient measures to fight illegal fishing.
The organisation has threatened a "red card", a full ban of fishery products imports to the European Union, if the country fails to curb abuses in the industry.
Mr Prayut's visit on Monday came ahead of the EC's upcoming inspection of the Thai fishing industry in April.
"I understand the NGOs' work, but you have to see as well where the national interests are," Mr Prayut said, as quoted in The Nation.
"You have to help us to explain to the international community and shouldn't let the government do all the explaining, especially regarding IUU and human trafficking."