COVID-19 Op-ed

Mekong Migrant Workers in Thailand: Pursuit of Rights-based Approach in Addressing COVID-19 Impacts

Ma. Josephine Therese Emily G. TevesSarah Grace L. Candelario

Sarah Grace L. Candelario is a graduate student from the University of the Philippines’ College of Education. She received her bachelor’s degree in secondary education major in special education with honors from the same institution in 2009. She has worked for several years as an educator for children with developmental disabilities and indulged in her entrepreneurial interests in the food industry. Ma. Josephine Therese Emily G. Teves is currently a doctoral candidate of International Development Studies from the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University. She is a recipient of the ASEAN and Non-ASEAN Countries and MAIDS-GRID Scholarship for ASEAN Students. She took her Master’s in Business Administration (major in International Project Management) in Kyoto University under the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Scholarship – Japan Scholarship Program.

COVID-19 exposes socioeconomic inequality architecture in the global arena and exhibits a multiplicity of sociopolitical interventions. It decreases estimated global output from 32 percent to 13 percent in 2020 and increases unemployment to sectors in trade-oriented emerging economies such as Thailand (WTO, 2020). For instance, Thailand’s household debt expanded to a significant level and second quarter GDP contracted to 12.2 percent, making the annual growth estimates to further contract to 7.8-7.3 percent due to the impact of the pandemic (Thai PBS, 2020). On the other hand, measures to push the economy and to protect public health may have negative impact on another person’s right. Hence, addressing its impacts requires alignment with rights-based approach as it offers a unique opportunity to help everyone, especially the vulnerable groups. This entails due attention to the international human rights framework that puts human beings, with their needs and preferences, at the center of any intervention.Thailand has been hosting significant number of workers from many parts of the world, particularly from Mekong region such as Myanmar (48%), Cambodia (34%), Laos (18%) and Vietnam (0.001%) (ILO, 2019).  As of August 2019, there were 2,877,144 documented migrant workers in Thailand primarily employed in low-skilled jobs, including fishing, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, domestic work. Socioeconomic uncertainties and disruptions caused by the pandemic reveal the structural challenges in their social protection. Aside from the trauma of deportation, host state has viewed them as potential carriers of virus. Despite their significant contribution in Thailand’s socioeconomic environment, the Thai government’s overall response in their situation suffers from a performance dilemma. They should have the same privilege to access social safety nets such as the provisioning of severance and sustenance pay and other pending unpaid leave privileges in case of contract termination as part of mitigating the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic. Yet, many are still left behind (Sandford,2020).The Mekong migrant workers’ vulnerability has been exposed during the pandemic. Majority of them are living in perilous conditions with inadequate state support and suffering from pre-existing health conditions due to their employment (The Thaiger,2020).  They find it difficult to finance their daily expenses as they were laid off, rarely receiving any financial and health support from the Thai government and not receiving adequate Civil Society Organization (CSO) support. Unfortunately, Thai authorities’ mitigation response has indirectly generated tensions and contradictions among them. Hence, in order to ensure their human rights during the pandemic, the Thai government should pursue the rights-based approach on its migrant worker policies, such as the following:

  1. Create accessible complaint mechanisms for migrant workers and impose stricter penalties for violation of their labor rights. Around 500,000 migrants had not been granted health insurance renewals and 1,000,000 migrant workers were not able to receive social security due to their incomplete work documents as their employers were not able to provide termination letters on which by law are required to do so (Fawthrop,2020).Migrant Workers Rights Network has stated that migrant workers have not received their redundancy pay. Only 3 out of over 70 companies have remunerated unemployed migrant workers and only one paid those on furlough 75% of their salaries due to the pandemic. Moreover, employers were not able to provide preventive measures such as clean and hygienic living conditions, clean water, masks and quarantine places (Fawthrop,2020) (Boonlert,2020). In this regard, accessible complaint mechanisms should be made available to allow employers to be accountable to their actions and halt further violations towards migrant workers.
  2. Institute proactive labor and social protection to all migrants across sectors. Migrant workers should receive fair access to health facilities and appropriate working conditions, labor and social protection laws. Migrant worker groups encourage the Thai government to assert clear policies of access to free public healthcare appropriately prepared to deal with the complexities of a pandemic and to facilitate guidelines and legal frameworks for streamlining the access to the health care system for all kinds migrant workers, regardless of their status, within a human-rights lens. This may include strengthening cooperation for the Employment of Workers with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar that allow their nationals to enter and work legally in Thailand as contract labor for up to four years, provisioning of information campaigns and action plans in going after carriers, the determination of migrants’ health needs and cooperation with migrants’ home states. Indirectly, this would help the most vulnerable by providing institutions and governance a provisional bridge to solve pockets of unemployment and underemployment during the pandemic.
  3. Entitle all kinds of migrants to flexible, accessible and nondiscriminatory health, social security and other welfare protections. The Thai government should be encouraged to waive enforcement of Section 14 of the Foreigners’ Working Management Emergency Decree to allow those whose work permits expired due to unemployment between March and July 2020, and whose former employers failed to notify the authority, to extend the document and seek new employment without incurring additional processing fees. In addition, as the fishery sector does not require fishing operators to register migrants under the social security and health insurance systems, it is also encouraged that Thai government urge fishing operators to register migrant workers under both systems.


  1. Boonlert, Thana. 2020. “Help Urged for Migrant Workers in Limbo.” Bangkok Post, 26 July, 2020. (Accessed 22 August, 2020).
  2. Fawthrop, Tom.2020. “CoVID-19: Thailand’s Looming Second Wave.” The Diplomat, 21 June, 2020. (Accessed 02 July,2020).
  3. Sandford, Steven. 2020. “Thailand’s Migrant Workers Struggle to Qualify for Aid During Pandemic.” VOA News, 17 June, 2020. (Accessed on 02 July,2020).
  4. International Labour Organization (ILO). 2019. “Triangle in ASEAN Quarterly Briefing Note.” ILO September 2019.—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/genericdocument/wcms_614383.pdf
  5. Thai PBS World Editorial, 2020. “Thailand’s GDP this year set to contract 7.8%-7.3 % not 5-6% previously forecast.” 17 August, 2020. (Accessed on 03 July 2020).
  6. The Thaiger Editorial. 2020. “COVID-19 Hotline for Forgotten Migrant Workers.” 07 May, 2020. (Accessed on 22 August 2020).
  7. World Trade Organization. 2020. “Trade set to plunge as COVID-19 pandemic upends global economy.” 08 April, 2020. (Accessed on 03 July 2020).

 Â ——————————————— As the host state’s political legitimacy is built on its ability to respect and protect migrants against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, it will reduce its marginal legitimacy when it fails to be one.

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