The government said this weekend that the public should not blame the migrant worker community for the latest coronavirus outbreak.
The latest government report says that the new outbreak cluster is centered around migrant worker dormitories in Samut Sakhon with 90 per cent of the new cases found in workers from Myanmar that are employed in the province’s fishing community.
NGOs and labour groups estimate that there are some 200,000-400,000 migrant workers working in Samut Sakhon. Many of them are unregistered.
The government, for its part, has insisted that migrant workers form an important part of Thailand’s economy and that it would do its best to take care of those infected and not abuse their human rights – as if any other option would be acceptable.
But if the outbreak cluster does become significant and cases do spiral out of control, the government will have no one to blame but itself and the result would be karmic retribution for its lax action on registering migrant workers and providing a legal path to employment.
Fingers, in that case, should be pointed not just at the Prayut Chan-ocha government but every previous government that came before.
Warnings over the abuses and irregularities within Thailand’s fishing industry have reared its head before. Media reports in Reuters, the Guardian and the Associated Press just half a decade ago showed that slavery and trafficking was a regular part of Samut Sakhon’s fishing industry.
The government vowed then, and continues to promise now, that it would do its utmost to crackdown on human trafficking and to properly register migrants working in the province.
Fast forward to 2020 and it seems that the efforts to do so have been haphazard at best. As Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul has said, the new cluster likely comes from migrant workers illegally crossing over to work in the fishing industry.
But didn’t the government promise that such a scenario would be a thing of the past? Didn’t the government say that it would register all migrant workers? Didn’t the government say that it would prosecute factory and ship owners who employed unregistered workers? Didn’t the government promise to secure the borders?
It has failed in all its promises and in doing so has failed the great public.
Deeper lying issues
But there are other, deeper-lying issues here than just unregistered workers. The whole reason why the migrant worker population has been such a driving force of the economy in Samut Sakhon is because Thais have moved on from the industry because the labor is intense and the pay is poor.
This is true not just of the fishing industry but the agricultural sector, the rubber sector, the construction sector and more.
Thais have increasingly moved away from jobs requiring manual labor but instead of moving to higher-skilled work, they have instead moved into the similarly low-paying services sector.
This is a failure of government policy.
The protesters are right, our education program, our government policies do not support entrepreneurship but maintenance of the status quo.
This is why we’re still a natural resource dependent country whether through its exploitation in fisheries, agriculture and heavy industries or its promotion through tourism.
That is why our economy is affected when natural disasters strike or pandemics occur. It is not resilient because it is not adaptable nor innovative.
It is reliant on manual labor, reliant on the flow of unregistered, sometimes trafficked, migrants which brings with it problems like the one we’re currently facing.
At every juncture, the government has chosen to take the easy way out because it is easier to turn a blind eye to undocumented workers than offer them a legal path to meaningful employment and because it is easier to exploit natural resources than create an economy that innovates and creates.
The government is right, we should not blame the undocumented workers, we should blame this administration.