Four Action Items Necessary to Workers’ Empowerment in Thailand

Migrant workers’ rights must be strengthened in Thailand. Numerous legal and practical barriers to genuine worker empowerment remain. Based on our work on the ground, we believe the following issues are most in need of immediate action to remedy the situation:

  1. Recognize migrant workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Migrant workers in Thailand are prohibited by the Labor Relations Act of 1975 from forming their own unions or serving in leadership positions within a union, which leaves them isolated and more vulnerable to abuse. Improving the rights of migrant workers and minimizing their risk of trafficking necessitates amending the LRA to ensure the rights of all workers, regardless of nationality, are respected.
     
  2. Reform laws governing migrant worker recruitment and employment. Migrant workers are bound to their current employer, and often their recruiter, through a complicated registration process that requires large fees up front and leaves workers dependent on employers for legal documentation. In addition to relaxing Thai laws that prohibit changing employers, government-to-government recruitment channels need to be improved to provide simpler, cheaper, and safer labor migration from Cambodia, Burma, and Laos to Thailand. Corrupt officials who profit off labor migration must be held accountable. Regulation of recruitment agencies and brokers must also be strengthened on both sides of the border.
     
  3. Ensure access to effective remedy. Exploited migrant workers have few options for reporting abuse. The International Labor Organization has recommended mandating access to complaint mechanisms for non-Thai nationals, designating an institution responsible for administering that mechanism, prohibiting retaliation against workers who register complaints and ensuring those workers retain the legal status to work. It is also important that groups representing migrant workers are included in grievance processes to build legitimacy and trust. Industry has a vital role to play in this process by allowing such groups access to workers and allowing unannounced workplace audits by independent organizations.
     
  4. End use of criminal defamation to muzzle free expression. Thai companies under fire for their labor practices have been effective in silencing their critics by charging them with criminal defamation. In one recent example, 14 migrant workers have been charged with criminal defamation by their former employer, the owner of Thammakaset chicken farm. The workers allege they were forced to work 20 hours per day, sleep with the chickens, had their identity documents confiscated and were restricted in their ability to leave the facility. The workers reported their situation to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, and based on that testimony the owner filed the charges. The Royal Thai Navy has in the past brought charges of criminal defamation against journalists reporting on trafficking at sea, and criminal defamation is having a chilling effect on human rights reporting broadly across the country.