On Wednesday evening, the Marshall School of Business’ Society and Business Lab, in conjunction with the School of Cinematic Arts and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking screened Kavi, a Oscar-nominated short film about a young modern-day slave laborer working in a brick kiln in India. Through its heartfelt depictions, the film sheds important light on the country and its social problems. More importantly, Kavi makes it starkly known that slavery still exists everywhere in the world today. In fact, the current number of slaves number is approximately 27 million, more slaves than history has ever known.
Definitively, slavery can be described as the restriction of ones freedom to move, which includes much more than the slavery written in history books. For one, such a restriction consists of human trafficking and, in a way, the millions of people who leave their countries to find work out of necessity, based on oppressive economic factors.
Many Southeast Asian businesses depend on these kinds of employees, migrant workers who provide inexpensive labor, to keep their countries competitive with rising giants China and India. On the other end, the system allows workers to find productive employment in host countries.
On Tuesday, the Thai Labor Ministry enacted a new immigration policy aimed at better monitoring its labor force. Unregistered foreign migrant workers had to either seek new work permits or request to have their citizenship validated, disrupting the country’s heavy reliance on migrant workers. The policy was leveraged with the threat of arrest and deportation for those who didn’t comply.
According to the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), there are more than 1.4 million migrant workers in Thailand, mostly originating from the Southeast Asian countries of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. They constitute about 5 to 10 percent of the Thai work force. With that said, a reported 500,000 people did not register with local authorities and are now facing deportation.
Though the Thai government’s concerns of preserving national labor laws and keeping health and security risks at bay are legitimate, this abrasive register-or-leave policy may not be the most effective method. For one, the system apparently does not translate instructions into the workers’ native languages, making it daunting and very difficult to register.
Businesses are frantic that this will drive costs up and hurt Thailand’s economy. Low-wage businesses, predominantly textile mills and farms, have already been experiencing employment shortages and cannot afford to lose a significant portion of their workers. Deporting thousands of foreign workers may mean that wages will have to increase. For many migrant workers, like those from Myanmar, returning to their home countries might not be a safe option. Furthermore, as activists at Human Rights Watch purport, there is a lack of transparency in the country and region as a whole.
“Physical abuse, maltreatment and subhuman conditions are but a few of the bad things to come to migrant workers who will be arrested and detained once the Thai government pursues its crackdown,“ said Eni Lestari, chairperson of the IMA.
Another point of contention is the Thai government’s recent signing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which this new policy could violate. For “humanitarian” purposes, it says, “the receiving states and the sending states shall take into account the fundamental rights and dignity of migrant workers and family members already residing with them without undermining the application by the receiving states of their laws, regulations and policies.” But what if there were a problem with the laws, regulations and policies of the state?
A classic case of overlapping authority and clashing priorities, Thailand’s immigration policy has resulted in different influential parties arguing in opposite directions. For the authorities, it seems to be an issue of an “us vs. them” ideology, where the government is concerned with preserving national boundaries and the domestic workforce, as any sovereign state is naturally apt to do. But the consequences of this recent policy will affect both migrant and domestic workers, the costs of production and, potentially, interstate relations.
Before creating such a stringent punishment, the groundwork for proper follow through needs to be set. If not, the purpose is defeated. It seems as though the laborers are left between a rock and a hard place and, as Wednesday’s discussion pointed out, there are millions similarly trapped in this situation.
Nadine Tan is a sophomore majoring in business administration. Her column, “World Rapport” runs Fridays.