Unemployed Southeast Asian Migrants in Thailand Struggle as COVID-19 Shuts Down Economy

As Thailand’s economy shuts down due to government efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, migrant workers from neighboring Southeast Asian countries Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos have found themselves suddenly unemployed and scrambling to go home.

While some who remain in Thailand are struggling financially, others are trying to return to their home countries amid border closures and concerns that they could bring the virus with them.

The shutdown is causing ripples throughout the region as many of the migrants send money home to support their family members.

Keo Sophat, a Cambodian migrant, told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that now that his Bangkok food stall is shut down, he is running out of money. He knows of about 20 other migrants who are in a similar predicament.

During his unemployment, Sophat has been forced to move in with four others to save money. His living expenses make it difficult to send money to support his children in Cambodia, and his savings have dwindled to about 2,000 baht (U.S. $60).

“I’m in a bad spot right now. I have no money to pay the rent and my kids don’t have enough food to eat,” he said.

“My kids will starve if I’ll have to remain jobless for a long time,” said Sophat.

“We have no idea how long the border will be closed,” he added.

According to The Khmer Times, Cambodia’s border with Thailand closed down, effective Monday.

Sarun Chin, another Cambodian migrant who had been working for three years in a Bangkok eatery, told RFA he had never faced a situation like he is in today.

The Banteay Meanchy province native had been able to save at least 6,000 baht ($183) per month, but now he is unable to send money to his parents as he normally would because his job was suspended on March 21 through at least mid-April.

“People have stopped coming to eat grilled meat, because they are afraid they’ll catch COVID-19,” he said.

“Cambodians have stopped looking for work out here, so they are now staying home,” said Chin.

Another migrant, Morn Kimly, who also worked in an eatery, she also is unable to send her usual monthly remittance to her family.

“My job was suspended,” she said.

“If the coronavirus is going to stick around for a long time, my family will die of starvation,” she added.

“I am upset because the rich and powerful people in Cambodia can still live comfortably, but poor people like me must work hard here in Thailand.”

Social impact

Dy Thehoya, the head of Thailand’s migrant labor organization, told RFA that if Cambodians must endure prolonged unemployment in Thailand, many would be at risk of starvation.

He said that under a Memorandum of Understanding between the governments of Thailand and Cambodia, migrant Cambodians who find themselves unemployed should be entitled to 50 percent of their salaries just like their Thai counterparts.

But due to legal technicalities, many Cambodian migrants are officially self-employed, and thereby do not qualify for unemployment benefits. Many others might not qualify because they do not have legal residency.

“If the Thai workers are getting 50 percent then Cambodian workers should also get 50 percent,” said Dy.

According a report by Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor, there are more than 1 million Cambodian workers in Thailand, but a report from the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), that number swells to about 2 milllion when undocumented Cambodians are taken into account.

Returning Myanmar workers present risks

Meanwhile on Thailand’s border with Myanmar, thousands of migrant workers are returning home daily. Labor activists warn that they might bring the coronavirus with them and could infect their own families.

Karen National Media Correspondent Mann Myo Myint, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that more than 10,000 people crossed the Myawaddy-Maesot No. 2 bridge into Myanmar on Sunday alone.

“At least 3000 migrants are returning [to Myanmar] daily,” said Mann Myo Myint from Maesot, on the Thai side of the bridge.

“It is mainly because of the factory closures after the coronavirus outbreak. People are now gravely concerned over a famed doctor’s warning that people in Thailand should stay in their homes or else the country would become the next Italy,” the news correspondent said.

The European country is currently on lockdown, as the failure to contain the spread of the coronavirus has resulted in confirmed cases increasing exponentially there, to the point that it is now the country with the most cases outside of China, where the initial outbreak occurred.

“But migrant workers from Myanmar cannot stay at home. How would they make a living? Since they are not allowed to go to work, they decided to return home regardless of what the consequences are,” said Mann Myo Myint.

The Myanmar government officials have set up facilities at border gates to screen for COVID-19 symptoms and returning migrant workers must record their name and address.

The high numbers of returnees in Maesot come even as the Thai government has ordered restrictions on traffic between Bangkok and Maesot, as well as border gate closures. The mayor of Maesot went against these orders to keep open the No. 2 bridge into Myanmar as so many are still trying to cross.

A Thai government official told RFA, “The bridge officially closed March 23, but we are allowing migrant workers from Myanmar to cross [into Myanmar].”

Back in Myanmar

On the Myanmar side of the border, authorities are welcoming the returning workers with medical checkups and directing them to seek shelter from the virus.

Tay Zar Aung, the director of Myawaddy district’s General Administration Department told RFA that his office had engaged in negotiations with Thai immigration offiicals.

“Mainly, we intended to receive the returning workers through the official border gates. They said the workers should stay in their homes to contain COVID-19, because it could be dangerous if they are still travelling,” said Tay Zar Aung.

Even so, many of the workers are crossing the border illegally by traveling across the Thaungyin river that flows between the two countries.

Mann Myo Myint pleaded with them to use official border crossings.

“I urge the migrant workers to refrain from illegally crossing the border because they skip over the medical checkpoints on both sides of the border. If they are carrying the virus, they will infect their families and communities, so it is dangerous for everyone,” he said.

Migrant worker rights groups estimate that some 2.2 million Burmese work legally in Thailand, with a million more undocumented.

Lao migrants stuck in Mukdahan province

Meanwhile in Thailand’s Mukdahan province, thousands of Lao migrants are trying to cross the Mekong river into Laos’s Savannakhet province, but the order to close the border could strand them there.

A Thai immigration officer at the second Lao-Thai Mekong Friendship Bridge told RFA’s Lao Service that not all of the workers were able to cross before Monday’s deadline.

“Although the provisional governor gave the order to close the gate, we are still clearing those stuck here and are sending them back to Laos one by one or in groups,” the immigration officer said.

He added that each returnee must check their body temperature. Among those yet to return to Laos, none are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

An official from the border gate on the Lao side of the border told RFA that after receiving word that the Thai authorities are allowing more Lao migrants to cross the border, Savannakhet’s government set up a task force to also inspect their health before allowing them to return to their homes.

The task force has so far found none who have returned to be showing COVID-19 symptoms.

“They should be inspected for the virus and subject to 14 days quarantine. If everything is clear they can go home. We have a responsibility to protect them, their families and society first,” said the official.

Laos remains cautious

An official of Vongphansy village, in Savannakhet’s Outhomphone district told RFA that since the closure of the border, 10 people returned to the village from Thailand, and all of them were examined and placed in quarantine even though they did not appear to be infected.

“They are in quarantine for 14 days. It is for their protection and their families’ protection,” the village official said.

One of the Lao migrants told RFA Tuesday that they had no choice but to return to Laos.

“Employers in Thailand are not hiring workers anymore. All the businesses are closed and that’s why we have to go back to Laos. We don’t have money for food and rent because the businesses will be closed for more than a month, or maybe even a year if the problem persists,” the migrant said.

A Lao task force committee estimated that over the past weekend more than 26,000 people who came across the border from Thailand, most of whom were Lao migrants.

As of Wednesday, Thailand reported 934 confirmed coronavirus cases and four deaths. All Thai-based airlines suspended operations starting Wednesday and the Thai government declared a national emergency effective Thursday through the end of April.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer and Lao Services and Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Samean Yun, Pheap Aun, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, and Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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