Illegal Lao Workers Flee Thailand Amid Crackdown

Hundreds of undocumented Laotians have fled Thailand since the Thai government imposed tough new restrictions on illegal migrant workers two weeks ago, according to a border official, with some condemning the Lao embassy for failing to protect their rights amid the crackdown.

On June 23, Thailand implemented a royal decree imposing jail terms of up to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 baht (U.S. $2,941) on illegal workers in the country.

The decree was suspended for 180 days following a backlash from companies and migrant advocates, but hundreds of Laotians have fled the country in the meantime, fearing prosecution by the government and exploitation by their employers, according to a Thai official at the Pak Xaeng border checkpoint between Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani and Laos’ Champasak provinces.

The official, who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity, said that “more than 100” undocumented workers from Laos were returning home daily through his checkpoint alone until earlier this week, when the stream trickled down to around 30 per day.

Most of the workers, he said, are paid minimum wage on a daily basis for jobs in construction and agriculture, and illicitly enter Thailand because the fees required to obtain legal work—often around 20,000 baht (U.S. $587) per person—are too high for them to afford.

A Lao official at the Vangtao border checkpoint in Champasak, who also asked to remain unnamed, confirmed that most Lao workers chose to “pay a smaller amount of money to border authorities” in bribes to cross into Thailand, instead of paying fees for legal work status in the neighboring country.

By circumventing legal work status, however, undocumented Laotians working in Thailand regularly face exploitation by their employers, who violate their rights, or by middlemen, who promise them well-paying jobs, only to traffic them into slavery-like labor conditions.

One such worker, who did not provide her name, recently posted a complaint on Facebook slamming Lao authorities—and specifically Lao embassy officials—for failing to advocate for Laotians working in Thailand and provide them with assistance when in need.

“Why doesn’t the Lao embassy take care of Lao workers in Thailand instead of only trying to get tax money from them,” she asked in her post.

Worker assistance

Officials at the Lao embassy in Bangkok refused to comment on the situation of Laotians working illegally in Thailand, despite repeated requests.

But an official with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare in the Lao capital Vientiane told RFA that undocumented workers do have access to limited assistance from the Lao diplomatic mission in Thailand.

“We recommend that they return to Laos and obtain what they need legally,” he said.

“If you enter illegally, you have a chance of getting into trouble. Our laws can’t cover everything for those in Thailand.”

Additionally, he said, Laos and Thailand have a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in place to help tackle the employment issue, and the Thai government has established centers in Thailand’s capital Bangkok and in Nongkhai city, along the border with Laos, to assist Lao workers.

According to Thailand’s Ministry of Labour, there are around 170,000 Lao workers working legally in the country out of around 2.7 million documented migrant workers—mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia.

While the ministry does not provide figures for undocumented workers from specific countries, it estimates that 2 million migrants are working in Thailand without papers. Reports suggest that more than 200,000 of those illegal migrant workers are from Laos.

Labor shortage

Meanwhile, Laos is suffering from a shortage of workers—including skilled workers—but Laotians prefer to work in Thailand because they receive nearly double the pay they get at home.

Due to the shortage, the Lao government has been forced to allow companies investing in Laos to import workers from their own countries—mainly China, Vietnam, and Thailand.

In addition, many nationals from these countries have entered Laos with valid passports, but have overstayed their visas to work illegally in construction or to set up their own small businesses throughout the country, often transporting goods for sale in rural areas.

In 2016, the Lao government ordered provincial authorities to register all illegal immigrant workers in the country, but as of March only around 24,000 have been documented, leaving what is believed to be a substantial number unlisted.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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