BANGKOK -- Thailand's economy has been rocked by the haphazard exodus of illegal workers driven by fears of a crackdown on laborers without visas following the May military coup.
A huge number of Cambodians and other economic migrants working unlawfully in Thailand have already fled the country.
The abrupt departures are threatening some Thai industries that rely on foreign workers, especially the construction sector, where a labor shortage is beginning to cause delays.
The military government has denied any immediate plans to target illegal laborers, but it has ordered workers and companies to follow the rules concerning mandatory employment registration.
However, the generals running the Thai government are showing signs of tackling the illegal migrant worker issue, one which has remained untouched for years.
The exodus of guest workers started in mid-June, when more than 200,000 Cambodians, mostly undocumented workers, suddenly crossed the border into Cambodia. A long line of Cambodians rushing to return home appeared at a central Thailand border checkpoint.
"Slaves" at sea
The exodus was triggered by a report carried by the British Guardian newspaper stating that migrant workers from countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia are used as "slaves" on fishing boats used to catch food for prawns in Thailand. The report prompted global retailers including Carrefour of France to react by terminating seafood imports from Thailand.
The report also generated rumors that the Thai military will start arresting illegal workers in response to international criticism of the "slave" labor, scaring migrant workers into returning to their home countries.
In Thailand, there are 2.2 million properly registered migrant workers from its three less developed neighboring nations Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. But some estimates say double that number are actually working in Thailand legally or illegally.
The flight of foreign workers is already affecting industries such as construction and seafood-processing. Thailand, where the unemployment rate is low at around 1%, has been plagued by a chronic labor shortage.
In Bangkok, some construction companies have started informing customers of likely delays in the completion of new houses.
In Samut Sakhon Province in central Thailand, the local fishermen's union says seafood processing plants in the province are running at less than half capacity because they cannot hire enough workers. Most illegal workers in Thailand are those who have stayed in the country after their work visas expired or are people who have entered the country without obtaining the appropriate visa.
Illegal workers are often smuggled into Thailand and supplied to employers by unscrupulous brokers, who charge over 20,000 baht ($631) per worker.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Royal Thai army's commander-in-chief and head of the army-led National Council for Peace and Order, which currently rules the nation, pledged to crack down on unlawful recruitment agencies after the issue of exploitation came to public attention. "The NCPO will concentrate on a crackdown on influential people who reap benefits from trafficking illegal laborers," said the NCPO chairman.
He urged foreign workers to obtain legal work permits and told employers to register migrant workers as required.
On July 1, the NCPO set up a service center in Samut Sakhon, home to a cluster of seafood-processing businesses, to make it easier for foreign workers to get work permits. The junta plans to establish similar centers around the nation.
"Since we are short of labor, we have been hiring illegal migrant workers even by paying big protection money to police," said the owner of a construction company in Samut Sakhon.
Observers say corrupt police have been complicit in the hiring of illegal workers in exchange for bribes.
Since taking power, the military junta, which is prioritizing fighting corruption, has been working hard to solve the problem of undocumented migrant workers. Foreign workers who have returned home are not rushing back to Thailand despite attempts by the military government to reassure such workers. As a result, the prospects for government efforts aimed at solving the labor shortage remain bleak.
With labor costs rising in Thailand, the junta is planning to hold talks with its neighbors to improve the working environment for migrant workers from those countries.