Following the military coup on May 22, 2014, several hundred thousand registered and unregistered migrant workers from Cambodia, Burma, and Laos have fled the country in fear of a government crackdown and newly announced regulations.
More than 200,000 Cambodian workers have returned to Cambodia, according to the International Organisation for Migration and Cambodian police. Smaller numbers have crossed into Burma.
At least eight fleeing migrants have died in traffic accidents on Thai roads, and many of those who crossed the border into Cambodia had been in squalid and unhealthy conditions before they were able to move to other parts of the country.
''The Thai junta's new regulations have caused a massive flight of migrant workers, who have long endured abuses from officials and unscrupulous employers,'' said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ''The junta needs to reverse this disaster by quickly putting into place genuine reforms that would protect migrant workers' rights, not threaten them.''
After the coup, the military National Council for People and Order (NCPO) and the joint military-civilian Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) in many provinces opened a campaign to ''regulate'' migrant workers.
The targets are migrants who entered Thailand without documentation and are working without official permission, those working outside the province designated in their work permits, and those whose travel documents and work permits have expired.
Some employers have also reportedly circulated rumors that Thai authorities will physically harm any migrants arrested, as a ploy to drive out migrant employees without paying wages owed to them.
The NCPO issued Orders 67 and 68 on June 16 and 17, respectively, stating that Thai authorities do not have any policy as yet to crack down on migrant workers. Instead they are requiring all companies to ''submit comprehensive name lists of their employees'' to prevent ''illegal activity, drugs, crime, unfair employment and bodily harm.''
While the compilation of lists is taking place ahead of inspections, the NCPO deputy spokesman, Colonel Winthai Suvaree, said that employers of migrant workers are allowed to ''carry on with business as usual while taking the best care of their workers.''
Colonel Winthai told the media that better regulations are required to ensure improved treatment of migrant workers in line with human rights and international standards.
Under Order 67, the NCPO is developing the lists of names ''so that all migrant workers may be treated fairly, according to human rights and humanitarian principles, and so that Thailand may explain the situation to the international community without compromising its credibility.''
The government assurances seem to have had little effect on the departure of migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said.
In Order 67, the NCPO contends that human rights organisations have raised concerns about ''human rights violations, human trafficking, use of illegal and forced labor, physical abuse of migrant workers, etc.'' in Thailand that ''are not true in any way,'' thus ''compromis[ing] Thailand's credibility.''
But abuses of migrant workers in Thailand have repeatedly been documented by Human Rights Watch and others, including in the report 'From the Tiger to the Crocodile: Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand.'
The abuses include assaults and killings by government security forces and private individuals, extensive use of torture and ill-treatment in detention, sexual abuse, widespread labor rights abuses, and pervasive extortion.
Throughout the country, abuses of migrants have been systematic and those filing grievances have faced immediate, violent retaliation from local police, officials, and employers. Severe restrictions on migrant's rights to establish trade unions, to legally organise associations, and to assemble and express views reinforce the vulnerability of migrants to abuses.
To end the massive flight of migrant workers from Thailand, the NCPO should promptly adopt measures to protect their rights. Among these would be to end restrictions on documented migrant workers changing employers, rescind regulations that violate migrant workers' right to freedom of movement, and amend the Labor Relations Act 1975 to permit migrant workers to form trade unions and collectively bargain.
The government should also set up a national-level government complaints body that will impartially and expeditiously investigate abuses of migrant workers' rights; thoroughly investigate and prosecute government officials, especially police, who extort and abuse migrant workers and their families; and revamp migrant registration procedures that are unnecessarily bureaucratic, complicated and expensive.
''Migrant workers make huge contributions to Thailand's economy, but their daily life is unsafe and uncertain, and they face abuses from many quarters,'' Adams said.
''If the military authorities are serious about rights-respecting reforms in the way Thailand handles migrant workers, they should prosecute those who abuse migrants and get rid of discriminatory regulations that violate migrant workers' rights.''