Myanmar deaths show immigrant labour system doesn't work, says ILO

(dpa) - The deaths by suffocation of 54 Myanmar illegal workers have highlighted the failure of Thailand's formal recruitment labour system, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said Friday.

The mass suffocation of some 54 Myanmar nationals Wednesday night in Ranong province, southern Thailand, as they were being secretly transported in a seafood container truck, has drawn international attention to the country's poor record in human-trafficking and abuse of foreign labourers, said the ILO.

"It is clear that this occurrence is an indication, indeed a consequence, of a much larger problem," said Bill Salter, ILO's Sub-regional Director for East Asia.

He said the ILO would be investigating the incident, and watching to see what happens to the culpable parties.

Although the Thai government has put in place a system for legalizing migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, the system has proven inadequate to cover and protect the estimated 2 million foreign labourers in the country. "The formal systems of recruitment are not working," said Slater in a statement.

For almost a decade Thailand has registered foreign labourers usually employed in the fisheries, construction, agricultural and domestics sectors, allowing them to work in the country legally.

The great majority of the migrant workers are from neighbouring Myanmar, also called Burma, a country notorious for its political, social and economic woes.

The Thai government estimates that there are some 490,000 "identified" Myanmar migrant workers, but the real number of these workers in the country could exceed 2 million.

"These people are coming and they are going to come anyway, so rather than crack down on them, and driving them further underground, there needs to be a better labour migration management system," said Alan Dow, representative of the ILO office in Bangkok.

The ILO has urged Thailand and neighbouring governments improve the registration system to make it more comprehensive, noting that the current system is "slow and expensive," and fails to allow labourers to change employers "even if they suffer abuse."

According to the ILO's field research, more than half of the Thai employers interviewed were of the view that locking up their migrant employees so they "couldn't escape" was appropriate.

"The migrants are treated like a disposable workforce," said Dow. "Clearly Thai employers want access to a flexible labour force but what the ILO is saying is that they need to be treated fairly." 

That means holding employers and recruiters accountable for the treatment of migrants, legally registered to work or otherwise, and punishing those employers, recruiters and sub-contractors who abuse both the system and the migrants, he said.

"There is clearly a pressing need to develop a far-reaching, forward looking labour migration policy that will benefit not just the economy but people too - especially workers from other countries who, at the end of the day, are doing their fair share of helping the country grow," said Slater.

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