BANGKOK - Thailand may face a major labour crisis if it does not quickly adopt measures to help legalise an estimated 2 million migrant workers, following the approval of a new foreign labour law that imposes stiffer penalties on employers, a labour NGO said.
Mr Sompong Srakaew, director of the Labour Rights Promotion Network, told The Straits Times that about 30,000 workers from Myanmar and 3,000 workers from Cambodia have already left last week based on their monitoring reports.
He said about 100,000 more may also leave this week should the government fail in coming up with ways to help these illegal migrants apply for the proper documentation.
"There is no clear policy from the government right now, so workers go back home because they're scared," Mr Sompong said over the phone.
The law, enacted on June 23, imposes stiffer fines ranging from 400,000-800,000 baht (S$16,150-S$32,300). Employers who have more migrant workers pay higher fines.
The government said the law aims to raise the standards of foreign labour recruitment but observers said the government rushed the approval in a bid to change the country's status in the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Despite the rushed move, Thailand remained on the report's Tier 2 watch list with the US State Department, which means that the kingdom has failed to meet minimum standards in addressing the issue.
The government has since delayed by 120 days the implementation of three sections pertaining to penalties for employees, punishments for employers who hire workers for certain professions without permits, and recruiting workers without permits.
Thailand has about 5 million migrant workers and only 1.3 million have proper documents, according to the labour ministry. Majority of them come from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. They work in 24 sectors including construction, service, food manufacturing and fishing.
Mr Sompong warned that Thailand may see a similar situation like what happened in 2014 if the government does not act swiftly. Migrant workers fled the country then shortly after the junta came to power amid rumours of an imminent crackdown.
Mr Sompong said that many of the affected companies are small- to medium-sized enterprises that cannot afford to pay the stiffer penalties imposed by the new law.
"The economy cannot run absolutely," he said, noting that many of the affected companies rely on cheap labour.
In the wake of the chaos, national police chief Chakthip Chaijinda has warned police officers against extorting employers or migrant workers and said they will be punished severely.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam also assured that no arrests will be made in the meantime except in human trafficking cases.
He said the four-month grace period should allow illegal workers to return to their countries without facing legal action.
"Thai employers must also take action to comply with the law. They should explain to their employees that they can gradually return to their countries to seek permission to avoid disruption," Mr Wissanu said.
Meanwhile, the labour ministry has invited representatives of migrant workers groups to attend a public hearing on the new law on Wednesday. The ministry said earlier that firms facing labour shortage can seek their help as it runs a database of Thai workers, with 6,000-7,000 registered monthly.
Fines and violations:
- 400,000 to 800,000 baht per worker for employers who hire migrants for jobs prohibited to foreigners, employ migrants without work permits or with work permits for other employers - 400,000 baht per worker for employers who assign migrant workers to jobs that do not match what is specified in the work permit - up to 100,000 baht for workers who take different jobs from what is specified in their work permits - jail term up to five years and/or 2,000 to 100,000 baht fine for workers who work without a permit or do prohibited jobs