In Thailand, outbreak among migrant workers highlights rampant people smuggling

The Central Shrimp Market – a wholesale centre in Samut Sakhon province, about an hour’s drive southwest of Bangkok – was where Thailand ‘s most recent Covid-19 cluster emerged in mid-December. Today, the market and nearby blocks of migrant worker dormitories are under lockdown, cordoned off by fences and barbed wire, and guarded round the clock by security officials.
In an echo of the outbreaks in Singapore and Malaysia , where migrant workers bore the brunt of infections as well as blame for them, up to 10,000 migrant workers working in the market and living in the area have been prevented from going about their daily lives until the end of this month. Every day, NGOs and government officials bring food donations, water and other necessities for them, but they remain out of work and are scrambling to pay rent – usually 1,600-4,000 baht (US$53-US$133) for a room shared with three or more people.
On Thursday, tougher measures to screen travelling were imposed in Samut Sakhon and four other provinces in Thailand’s east. Those seeking to enter or leave the areas must declare their transport routes and vehicles. They are advised to travel only when absolutely necessary and carry a letter of permission or face fines.
Of Thailand’s more than 9,300 Covid-19 cases, over 3,000 have been detected in the province since December 15. The health ministry on Wednesday confirmed over 900 infections at a canned tuna factory there, while another major seafood firm the same day said it had found 69 cases among workers in various plants. More testing will be conducted at around 100 other factories where there are more than 500 workers.
Since the outbreak in Samut Sakhon, which is home to around 400,000 migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar , the community has been accused of importing Covid-19 into Thailand, even though most of them have remained in the country since the lockdown in March last year.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha last month said workers from Myanmar who had “snuck in and out” of Thailand were behind the cluster, and raised the prospect that officials had helped them cross the border.
While rights groups have pointed out that low-paid, marginalised migrants work and live in precarious conditions that are conducive to the spread of the virus, and have slammed finger-pointing from officials including Prayuth, the outbreak has highlighted rampant migrant smuggling and the corruption that perpetuates it.
Por, a Thai national who works at the Central Shrimp Market and asked to be known only by his first name, said it was “too convenient” to say that migrant workers who legally entered the country were spreading the virus as “there are those who were smuggled in by government officials and bribes were involved”.
“Most of the migrant workers here have worked for over 20 years and they are valuable human resources,” he said, adding that the market normally shipped 300-400 tonnes of shrimp around the country daily and estimating that it was losing up to 200 million baht (US$6.7 million) a day under the lockdown.
Sompong Srakaew, founder of the Samut Sakhon-based Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation, said there were around 2.6 million registered migrant workers in Thailand and between 3 million and 4 million more who were unregistered. He said around 80 per cent of all migrant workers in the country were from Myanmar, the kingdom’s western neighbour.
Sompong said the Covid-19 lockdown saw some 100,000 migrant workers leave Thailand last year, due to job losses or because they chose to return home in the face of uncertainty brought by the pandemic, but others have since made their way here with the help of smugglers.
Jack, a Myanmar national who works as Sompong’s translator and also asked to be identified only by his first name, said: “Before Covid-19, migrant workers had to pay around 30,000 baht each to smugglers to secure work in Thailand. But after the lockdown last year, smugglers have doubled their fees.”
He said migration controls had done little to prevent people smuggling because the porous 2,400km border the countries shared “makes entering Thailand easy”.
“Migrants might enter illegally with the help of smugglers, but later can be hired legally. It depends on luck, and jobs are easier to find in Thailand than in Myanmar,” he said.
“Some smugglers charge migrant workers only the entry fee, meaning there are more fees to be paid to other smugglers once the workers are in Thailand. Others send workers straight to their employers, depending on the agreement.”
At the end of December, the Thai government said it would allow undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to register for a two-year work permit after undergoing health checks, in a bid to control the outbreak through a track-and-trace scheme.
But this might not be the quick fix the authorities are hoping it would be. Sompong said the fees for registration, Covid-19 testing and insurance required to obtain the work permit came to about 9,000 baht (US$300), which might lead many currently suspended or unemployed workers across the country to remain unregistered.
Other issues, including language barriers or employers’ refusal to sponsor the work permit, have already led to illegal job agents charging desperate workers up to 16,000 baht for registration services, according to Han Win Aung, a construction worker from Myanmar who lives in Samut Sakhon.
He added that many of these illegal agents did not provide migrant workers with complete documentation despite receiving full service fees.
Still, there have been some pockets of kindness. Han, who volunteers some days of the week to bring food and water to migrant workers under lockdown at the Central Shrimp Market, said some dormitories had stopped collecting rent from workers, at least for the time being.
Jack, the translator, said migrant workers would face a more difficult time in the months ahead. “Last year, many of those who have worked here for seven or eight years depended on their savings to survive, but this time it is getting harder,” he said.
However, Jack said many migrants would prefer to stay in Thailand.
“Industries in Thailand still demand migrant labour and as coronavirus cases in Myanmar are higher, many would not want to return,” he said. “Migrants are paid more doing the dirty, dangerous and discriminated-against jobs in Thailand than college graduates in Myanmar are paid for government jobs, for example.”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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