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Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region

Labor Migration in the
Greater Mekong Sub-region
erese Caouette
Rosalia Sciortino
Philip Guest
Alan Feinstein
Table of Contents
1 Learning from a Transnational Grant-making Approach to Migration
in the GMS ..........................................................................................................................................................1
I. Program Background ...........................................................................................................................1
II. Grant-Making Features .......................................................................................................................3
2 Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows .........................................9
I. Market Integration Transforms Migration Systems in the GMS ................................9
II. Inequities as Push Factors for Migration .............................................................................. 12
III. Labor Migration Flows ..................................................................................................................... 17
IV. e Future of GMS Migration ...................................................................................................... 22
3 Migration in the Shadow of the Law .............................................................................................25
I. Unregulated Migration Exposes Migrants to Risks ......................................................... 25
II. Statelessness and Tra cking Compound Irregularity .................................................. 29
III. Regularizing Migration .................................................................................................................... 31
4 Unskilled Migrant Labor Feeds Industrialization ...............................................................35
I. Supply and Demand of Unskilled Labor ............................................................................... 35
II. Working at the Bottom of the Pyramid ..................................................................................37
Agriculture ............................................................................................................................................... 39
Domestic Work ..................................................................................................................................... 40
Fisheries and Fish Processing ...................................................................................................... 41
Construction Industry ...................................................................................................................... 42
Garment and Textile Factories .................................................................................................... 43
Entertainment Industry ................................................................................................................... 43
III. Assessing Economic Bene ts and Costs of Migrant Labor
at Destination ........................................................................................................................................ 44
5 Living Abroad in Vulnerable Conditions ...................................................................................47
I. In Dire Need of Legal Protection ............................................................................................... 47
II. Struggling to Provide Social Protection to Migrants ...................................................... 49
III. “Us” and “ em .................................................................................................................................. 55
6 Impacts of Migration in Countries of Origin ..........................................................................59
I. Survival or Development? .............................................................................................................. 59
II. Life for  ose Left Behind .............................................................................................................. 64
III. Return and Reintegration ............................................................................................................... 66
7 Addressing Intra-Regional Migration ..........................................................................................69
I. Current Responses to Migration ................................................................................................69
II. Gaps and Challenges ........................................................................................................................ 76
Building the Evidence Base for Informed Debates,
Policies and Interventions ............................................................................................................. 77
Reframing the Migration Discourse in Terms of Regional Integration
and Development ...............................................................................................................................78
Governing Migration ......................................................................................................................... 79
Breaking the Cycle of Vulnerability .......................................................................................... 81
Bibliography ........................................................................................................................................................... 85
Appendix A: List of Grants Related to Migration ............................................................................. 89
Appendix B: Grant-Related Resources Used in Report ................................................................ 93
Figure 1: Location of grantees ..................................................................................................................... 3
Figure 2: Location of Projects Activities ................................................................................................4
Figure 3: Promdan Source-Destination Locations .........................................................................5
Figure 4: Type of Grantees ............................................................................................................................5
Figure 5: GMS Economic Corridors (ADB) ...................................................................................... 10
Figure 6: Major Intra-regional Migration Flows in the GMS ................................................. 19
Figure 7: Distribution of Registered Migrants in  ailand ..................................................... 20
Figure 8: 2004 Distribution of Registered Migrants per Sector in  ailand
(Ministry of Labor) ..................................................................................................................... 37
Figure 9: Barriers to Health and Health-Seeking Behavior among Migrants .............. 52
Figure 10: Distribution of Remittances for Type of Expense ................................................... 63
Figure 11: Raks  ai Foundation Intervention Framework .......................................................72
Figure 12: PROMDAN’s Intervention Framework ........................................................................... 73
Figure 13: PHAMIT Strategy ......................................................................................................................... 74
List of Figures
Table 1: Social Indicators of GMS Countries ................................................................................... 15
Table 2: 1998-2005 Registered Migrants per Sex and Nationalities in  ailand
(Ministry of Labor)........................................................................................................................ 17
Table 3: Educational Levels of Migrants in  ailand ( ai Census 2000) ...................... 36
Table 4: 2004 Registered Migrants by Nationality and
Economic Sector in  ailand (Ministry of Labor) ..................................................... 38
Table 5: Salary of Migrants in  ailand According to Occupation and
Registration Status ........................................................................................................................ 39
Table 6: Caseload at the Mae Tao Clinic in 2004 ........................................................................... 50
Table 7: Number of Registered Migrant Children and Number of
Migrant Children Attending Schools per Location in  ailand ........................ 54
Table 8: Poverty Odds Ratio per Migrant Status and Composition of Village ..............57
Table 9: Rate of Intended Re-migration among Cambodian Returnees ......................... 68
List of Tables
Photo 1: Construction of a Road in Simao, Yunnan Province, China PDR. ...................11
Photo 2: Migrant Women Working for Textile Factories in Vientiane, Laos ...................16
Photo 3: Queues at the Myawaddy Checkpoint in Myanmar Leading to
Mae Sot in Tak Province of  ailand ................................................................................. 24
Photo 4: Across the Mekong River,  ailand is Easily Accessible from
Vientiane, Laos. ..............................................................................................................................27
Photo 5: Migrants from Myanmar being Deported En Masse from  ailand ............... 29
Photo 6: Cambodian Fishermen in  ailand.................................................................................... 41
Photo 7: Migrants’ Living Quarters in Mahachai,  ailand ..................................................... 49
Photo 8: Informal Classes for Migrant Children in Mae Sot,
on the  ai-Myanmar Border ................................................................................................ 55
Photo 9
& 10: Labor Sans Frontiers .................................................................................................................... 70
List of Photos
I. Program Background
In 2001, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Southeast Asia Regional Program (SEARP),
through the Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) Area of Work, began to address the
dynamics of regionalization in the Greater Mekong Sub-region or GMS, an emerging
economic area encompassing the watershed of the Mekong River and comprising
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar,  ailand, Vietnam and two provinces of southern
China —Yunnan and Guangxi.
e process of market and infrastructural integration in the GMS was set in motion
by the Asian Development Bank in the mid-1990s. Strengthening the competitive
position of GMS countries as an economic bloc vis-à-vis other regions has presented
opportunities for economic growth.  e recent rise of India and China is also
bene ting the GMS as a region strategically positioned between these two growing
economic giants. However, there are concerns that relative poverty across groups
and countries is increasing and that a large proportion of people in the GMS
remain excluded from the bene ts of regional growth: 30 percent of the 240 million
inhabitants still fall under the poverty line, and many more live at subsistence levels.
e Foundation therefore has chosen the GMS as a pivotal place for ensuring that the
bene ts of regional economic dynamism get to those who are being left behind—by
promoting more equitable development and the formulation of protection systems
for vulnerable groups.
LAB has emphasized understanding transnational trends and disparities resulting
from regional integration and developing capacity to address negative impacts
emerging from unequal regional development through interventions and
recommendations for policy reform. Our regional e orts combine grants for
research, for strengthening educational and advocacy institutions, for transnational
collaboration among strategic organizations, and for bringing successful e orts
and recommendations to the attention of key stakeholders, policymakers and the
public. LAB has also served as a platform for speci c evidence-based interventions
that leverage the Foundation’s knowledge and expertise in the areas of health, food
security and culture through the following shared initiatives:
Learning from a Transnational Grant-making
Approach to Migration in the GMS
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region2
Cross-Border Health, in collaboration with Health Equity, has been directed
at stemming the cross-border  ow of diseases, especially AIDS, TB, malaria,
dengue fever, and, more recently, SARS and avian  u, while enabling protection
of vulnerable mobile and ethnic minority populations.
Upland Communities in Transition, in collaboration with Food Security, has
been directed at increasing agricultural production in upland ethnic minority
communities to improve their livelihoods and foster access to regional markets.
Bridging Diversity, in collaboration with Creativity & Culture, has sought to
enhance recognition and appreciation for the religious and ethnic pluralism of
the region, while aiming to reduce sectarian and discriminatory tendencies
towards mobile and ethnic populations that are emerging in the process of
regional integration.
It is in this programmatic context that migration trends have been examined and
addressed.  is report argues that the rapid expansion of infrastructure and the
increase of  nancial, trade, and information  ows within and among GMS countries,
when combined with growing geo-political and socio-cultural inequities, shape
movements of people within and across borders. After years of relative in-country
isolation, millions of people are today on the move in the GMS, striving to adapt
their livelihoods to meet their basic needs and to achieve stability for themselves
and their families. For some, the political environment at home is forcing them
to move.1 Many others, struggling to survive, are drawn towards border trading
towns, urban areas and to more industrialized countries throughout the region and
beyond.  e pace at which change has come to the peoples of this region over
the last  fteen years, particularly those living in rural and often remote areas, is
dramatic, with minority groups who live in mountainous border areas being the most
challenged by increased migration out ows and returnees.
GMS governments are struggling to respond to these new realities, and  nd
themselves ill-equipped to stem the  ows or accommodate to the needs of migrants
and of their sending and receiving communities. Increased mobility is leading to
new social and health concerns related to the spread of infectious diseases, and to
migrants’ vulnerability to disease and abuse. Migration also poses the challenge to
the region’s governments of how to deal with new inter-group dynamics and potential
inter-ethnic and religious con icts, and of how to de ne regional and national
identities, establishing conditions and criteria for citizenship in societies that are
more and more diverse.
Taking into account these many challenges, Foundation grant-making has aimed at
building the knowledge base and institutional mechanisms for regional intervention
and policy responses that promote migration that is both humane and socially
bene cial. To provide an understanding of the work to date, and what lessons can
1 This is particularly the case in Myanmar (Burma), though to a lesser extent it is happening elsewhere in
the GMS.
3Learning from a Transnational Grant-making Approach to Migration in the GMS
be drawn from it for future planning, this report will analyze the programs that have
been supported and summarize the main conceptual and programmatic insights.
Before proceeding to the next chapters to answer the core question of this report
“What have we learned about migration in the GMS?”—a brief description and
analysis of migration-speci c grants is provided below.
II. Grant-Making Features
Since 2001 twenty-seven grants speci cally related to migration have been given
under LAB and its shared components for a total amount of US$ 3,398,583 (see list in
Appendix A). Of these, thirteen are for renewal support. Re ecting the programmatic
objective of addressing migration as a manifestation of regionalism, most of the
grants focus on migration within the GMS and are regional and bilateral in character.
ey therefore promote exchanges and partnerships among groups and institutions
with di erent geographical connections, technical skills and capacities for reaching
migrants and addressing their vulnerabilities. A key partner is the Asian Migrant
Center and its Mekong Migrant Network (MMN). Established with Foundation
support, MMN today constitutes a unique region-wide alliance of more than 40
academic and non-government organizations concerned with migration, providing a
system for monitoring and addressing migration dynamics at the regional level.  e
network’s engagement with government institutions and international organizations
has drawn public attention to the realities of migrants’ lives and led to important
policy discussions on how to transform migration for development.
e highest concentration of grantees is in  ailand, re ecting the fact that it is
currently the main destination for most migrants in the GMS (see  gure 1).
China, $784,143
(1 grantee, 3 grants)
Vietnam, $196,380
(2 grantees, 2 grants)
Cambodia, $489,940
(2 grantees, 3 grants)
Thailand, $2,195,520
(9 grantees, 16 grants)
Outside GMS, $99,730
(1 grantee, 1 grant)
Figure 1:
Location of
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region4
e projects supported focus on cross-border areas and areas with a large
concentration of migrants (see  gure 2).  e  ailand-based grantees primarily
work with migrants from neighboring countries and minority populations without
documentation, who largely reside along the  ai border and in other key destinations
across the country. In some instances,  ailand-based grantees received support
to work with partners in neighboring countries and build their capacity and skills.
is has led to the establishment of strong partnerships among organizations
throughout the region to comprehensively address migration  ows from source to
destination communities and back.
e PROMDAN Program (promdan = ‘border’ in both  ai and Cambodian) deserves
special mention for linking the source provinces of Prey Veng and Kampong Cham
in Cambodia to the destination provinces of Rayong, Pattani, Songkhla, Chonburi
and Trat in  ailand (see  gure 3).  e program helped build essential transnational
mechanisms to address migration  ows in a comprehensive way, thus enhancing the
resilience of both migrants abroad and in their home communities.
Direct and indirect support to partners in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Yunnan
(China) focused on building an understanding of the situation and testing innovative
intervention models with migrant groups in each country, as well as establishing
partnerships to address the  ows from both sides of the borders.  e focus on
migrant populations along shared borders is producing some of the  rst published
research and pilot interventions in these areas. A regional research collaboration,
led by a grantee in Indonesia, has contributed to new knowledge on transnational
sexual exploitation and tra cking. Sending communities are also covered by work in
the uplands under LAB’s Upland Communities in Transition component and within
the scope of other grants that propose models of interventions linking source and
destination communities such as the PROMDAN collaboration project.
Figure 2:
of Projects
5Learning from a Transnational Grant-making Approach to Migration in the GMS
As shown in  gure 4, half of the grantees are academic institutions, which usually
have governmental a liations, and half are non-governmental organizations
(NGOs).  ese NGOs operate in locations with a large concentration of migrants
and have been in the forefront of raising public awareness of migrants’ situations,
and in providing social and health services that governments have been unable or
unwilling to provide. Although grants were not given directly to community-based
organizations, NGO grantees have worked in partnership with them.  ey have also
worked in varying degrees with national and local government agencies, academic
institutions, and international organizations, thus creating multi-sectoral networks
to maximize coverage of the target migrant populations.
Figure 3:
6 Non-governmental
organizations (14 grants)
2 International
organiizations (3 grants)
7 Academic institutions
(9 grants)
Figure 4:
Type of
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region6
e remaining three grants were given to the Bangkok-based o ces of two
international organizations, namely the United Nations Development Program
(UNDP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), for activities
undertaken in coordination with government institutions to improve migrant
management systems and establish safer repatriation practices.  ese grants have
enhanced partnerships among diverse stakeholders, and have contributed towards
building a momentum for change in how migration and migrant protection are
viewed in the region.
e mix of partners from international organizations, academic institutions, to
NGOs, provided a sound balance for identifying issues, presenting diverse
perspectives and introducing strategies for change at a time when governments
were disinclined to focus on migration. More recently, governments are starting
to confront migration issues under the prompting of civil society groups and
international agencies.  e recent policy summit meeting held by the Mekong
Institute with Foundation support and attended by high-level country delegations
and representatives of major international donors is a prime example of how
alliances are broadening and how migration is being placed on the regional agenda.
Overall, grants have made a contribution to:
harnessing and building local expertise to document and understand the many
inter-related aspects of migration and regional transformations;
dissemination of local knowledge through publications and forums (often in
multilingual versions to reach wide readerships);
new partnerships and networks (formal and informal) that have stimulated
new policies and programs to address the vulnerabilities of migrants and
communities a ected by migration; and
implementation of evidence-based pilot interventions to better accommodate
migration  ows and enhance migrants’ livelihoods and welfare.
In terms of focus, a number of grants explored the transitional and cross-border
economies of the GMS and how regionalization comes to shape migration dynamics,
trends and vulnerabilities. Grants have documented migration  ows throughout the
GMS and the unique conditions along selected border areas, linking perspectives
from countries of origin, transit and destination to better understand the realities
of migrants and their vulnerabilities.  ese insights have contributed to increased
knowledge concerning the decisions to migrate and the entire migration experience,
including reintegration upon return.  ey have thus highlighted a wide-range of issues
relating to health, livelihoods, family life, culture, discrimination and exploitation.
Many of the grants went beyond promoting a new public discourse on safer migration
to contribute to a more favorable policy environment. Such grants supported
interventions to address the critical conditions of migrant workers, their families and
their communities. To reduce the occupation-based risks migrants encounter because
of their status as migrants, the projects focused on critical labor sectors, such as the
7Learning from a Transnational Grant-making Approach to Migration in the GMS
shing and manufacturing industries, domestic workers and sex workers. Special
consideration was given to health and welfare using models that open up access to
health services and limit the exposure of migrants to infectious diseases, especially
AIDS, TB and malaria. Grantees also piloted integrated approaches that broaden
livelihood options for migrants both in source countries, especially in the uplands
and other marginalized areas, and destination countries, and that facilitate mutual
cross-cultural understanding between host and migrant communities.
By spotlighting the many challenges migrants experience, while acquiring the
necessary knowledge and building the institutions to support and advocate for their
well-being, our partners have generated momentum for proposing national and
regional policy solutions to these challenges. An exemplary outcome has been the
establishment in  ailand of a migrant health coordinating unit under the Medical
Services Division of the Ministry of Public Health and the related development of a
migrant health policy initiated by a network of Foundation partners that is now being
carried forward by the Ministry of Public Health.
ese migration-related e orts over the last four to  ve years provide a strong
knowledge and experience base from which lessons can be drawn for future strategic
directions and programming.  is report is a  rst attempt at articulating such
lessons by reviewing the programs supported to date. Drawing on a very large body
of material produced under LAB—and complemented when necessary with
information from other relevant sources2—the following chapters will highlight the
main features of intra-regional migration in the GMS.
e report will document that in the GMS:
labor migration  ows on a large scale are recent and are shaped by unequal
migration is mainly irregular;
migrant labor is mostly unskilled;
receiving societies do not recognize the contribution migrants make;
the bene ts of migration to sending households and countries have yet to be
maximized; and
intervention and policy responses are at a very early stage.
In conclusion, some ideas will be presented on possible strategies to break the existing
cycle of vulnerability, and make migration a source of development for the migrants
and their sending communities. It is hoped that this review, although not exhaustive,
can contribute to the Foundation’s overall strategic process and help identify its
comparative advantage in addressing migration realities worldwide.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all the information provided in the report derives from staff’s observations, and
publications, meetings and reports funded by the Foundation. An extensive bibliography of these works
is included for those who wish more detailed information (Appendix B).
Inequitable Regional Development
Drives Migration Flows
I. Market Integration Transforms Migration Systems in the GMS
Population mobility is not a new phenomenon for the countries of the GMS. However
the nature and size of the  ows are now very di erent from the past. Previously,
large-scale population movements within the region occurred primarily as part of
the expansion of frontiers, with resettlement of populations defeated during warfare
an important form of movement. At a time when national boundaries were not yet
established, ethnic minority groups living in border areas moved freely in the region.
From outside the region, large numbers of Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Indians
came to mainland Southeast Asia and were assimilated with local populations. More
recently, political con ict and civil war throughout the GMS have compelled large
numbers of persons from neighboring countries to seek refuge in the relatively stable
environment of  ailand. is included an in ux of Kuomintang Party followers from
China in 1949; Vietnamese in 1959 and again in 1975 together with refugees from Laos
and Cambodia; and, since as early as 1972, an ongoing  ow of people from Myanmar.
e mid-70s to early 90s was a period of isolation for most GMS countries that
signi cantly reduced cross-border movements, with the exception of the continuous
ow of displaced persons and refugees from politically and economically unstable
Myanmar to  ailand.
ese past migration systems were embedded within political and socio-economic
contexts that structured the composition of migrant  ows and populations and
determined migrants’ identities, living conditions and opportunities. Similarly, today
the emerging political, economic and demographic contexts are changing intra-
regional migration systems, fostering a sharp increase in population mobility and a
shift in migration  ows from politically to economically motivated. One of the major
forces underlying this transformation has been the process of regional integration
spurred by the Greater Mekong-Subregional (GMS) Cooperation Program. Launched
in 1992 by the six participating governments and the Asian Development Bank, the
GMS Cooperation Program implied a development model of market liberalization and
integration of previously isolated economies into the regional and global economy.
GMS economies thus began moving from subsistence farming and command
economies to more diversi ed, open, market-based systems. An export-led industrial
strategy,  rst adopted by  ailand over three decades ago, is now being pursued by all
countries in the sub-region, although often adapted to their political, mostly socialist,
orientation.  e GMS Cooperation Program, linking less developed economies to
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region10
more dynamic ones in the grouping, also o ered the participating countries the
opportunity to integrate and harmonize their markets, thus strengthening their
joint competitive position as a trading bloc in the global economy, while enhancing
regional stability. Integration at the sub-regional level was soon to be followed by
entrance into larger regional and global economic bodies. In the second half of the
1990s, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar all gained access to the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its ASEAN-Free Trade Agreement (AFTA),
joining  ailand, which had become a founding member in 1967. Again long after
ailand joined as initiating member, China and Cambodia recently acceded to the
World Trade Organization (WTO), with Vietnam and Laos expected to follow in the
near future. When this is accomplished, the political and economic isolation from
international commerce and interaction that characterized most of the countries of
the GMS up to the early 1990s will have been fully broken, and borders opened to
allow circulation of goods and investments in the region and beyond.
In the resulting multi-level con guration of sub-regional, regional and global systems,
the GMS is considered pivotal not only for the concerned countries, but also because
it provides ASEAN with greater access to China (since the Chinese provinces of
Yunnan and Guanxi are o cially part of the GMS), and links it, through geographic
proximity, to the growing Indian market. In response to this geo-political context, at
the heart of the GMS Cooperation Program is the creation of a system of transnational
rail and road routes to increase interconnectivity of transport systems, power grids
and markets across and beyond the sub-region.  ese so-called “economic corridors”
Figure 5:
GMS Economic
Economic Corridor 1
Economic Corridor 2
Economic Corridor
Economic Corridor 2
Economic Corridor 1
11Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows
are meant to foster economic growth and social development in the sub-region
both by facilitating cross-border trade among GMS countries and by broadening their
trade reach to their powerful neighbors, thus making them vital gateways between
China, India and other ASEAN countries. Currently, three “economic corridors” (North-
South Economic Corridor, East-West Economic Corridor, and Southern Economic
Corridor; see  gure 5) and a number of alternative routes linking major cities and
ports across the sub-region are being developed. In addition there are e orts afoot to
increase the navigability of the Mekong River for trade and tourist purposes.
e creation of an extensive infrastructural system integrating all GMS countries
into a ”growth area” that spans across borders that were tightly controlled only a
decade earlier is one of the most tangible signs of the rapid pace of regional integration,
and one that deeply a ects mobility in the region.  e rapid improvements in road,
rail, and water transportation and checkpoint facilities, in combination with the
easing of land travel restrictions for tourism and business purposes, are facilitating
and instigating unprecedented  ows of people across borders.  e numbers of
inbound visitors across GMS land borders are climbing steeply, with  ai and Chinese
dominating mass cross-border travel, and with a growing number of border-pass
migrants from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar traveling to  ailand supposedly for
one-day visits. No data are available on the numbers of irregular migrants crossing
borders, but it is generally accepted that infrastructural development has facilitated
their in-country travel making it easier for them to reach uno cial entry points.
Photo 1:
of a Road in
Simao, Yunnan
China PDR.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region12
Infrastructure development and the related growth of the transportation sector also
a ect labor  ows in other signi cant ways. For example, they lead to the creation
of mobile work forces that include bus and truck drivers and migrant construction
workers. Construction companies from  ailand and China working in Laos, the
impoverished, land-locked country in the middle of the GMS where much of the
road construction is happening, often bring their own workers to the sites.  e
numbers and the resultant social impacts are expected to be profound: 75 percent of
construction contracts in Laos have been assigned to Chinese companies, and some
of the construction settlements comprise up to 20,000 Chinese workers each, often
in sparsely populated areas where previously only local ethnic minorities had been
Another impact of the rapid build-up of the infrastructure system is its impingement
on the environment of the sub-region from the uplands to plains to coastal areas.
ese environmental impacts in turn a ect people’s livelihoods, particularly the three-
quarters still living in rural areas, where they lead subsistence or semi-subsistence
agricultural lifestyles.  e extensive network of roads, bridges, and railways exposes
those in previously remote and isolated communities to a world where their life skills
do not easily transfer and where few support mechanisms are available for coping
with emerging socio-economic shocks, potentially placing them into conditions
of landless poverty and pushing them to move in search of better opportunities.
Construction and other development projects have led to large scale displacement
and resettlement of local communities, especially ethnic minority populations, and in
turn the migration of those who have lost their land and other sources of livelihood,
or who  nd their new places of residence untenable or unacceptable.
e most far-reaching impact of enhanced transportation in the sub-region for
intra-regional migration, however, is that it has made labor opportunities previously
considered as too distant to reach now easily accessible, therefore making cross-
border migration a more feasible option. Moreover, as communication, transportation
and markets have expanded throughout the region, economic inequities deriving
from unbalanced development have become increasingly obvious. It is clear, too,
that low-cost labor from the less economically advanced countries in the GMS is
abundant while the more economically advanced countries’ wage costs are rising
sharply and unskilled jobs are no longer sought by the local population.
II. Inequities as Push Factors for Migration
In spite of the collective faith in the bene ts of regional integration for all participating
economies, overall economic growth has failed to reduce gaps between rural and
urban areas, and between more industrialized and less industrialized countries, with
ailand, Vietnam, and Yunnan showing the biggest proportionate gains with regards
to trade, investment and economic growth.  e uneven spread of opportunities spurs
both internal and cross-border migration and provides the larger context for the
increase in the volume and the directions of the  ows.
13Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows
More particularly, the urban bias in national and regional development, with the
shift of resources from rural to urban and semi-urban areas, coupled with the
intensi cation of capital- and technology-intense commercial agriculture, is widening
the urban-rural divide and fostering large-scale urbanization.  e GDP of each
GMS country is increasingly earned in urban or peri-urban industrial areas or from
tourism (largely based in or near major GMS cities), notwithstanding the fact that
a large proportion of the GMS population—ranging from approximately 50 percent
in  ailand to over 80 percent in other countries in the sub-region—is still engaged
in low-earning agricultural activities. Unable to access and compete in emerging
agricultural markets due to a lack of capital, productive land, and technological
know-how and tools, farmers have been pulled to the rapidly expanding construction,
service and manufacturing sectors in booming urban and semi-urban areas,
becoming a source of low-wage labor. China and Vietnam in particular are in
the midst of this urbanization process, with unprecedented numbers of internal
migrants currently moving to the cities and other industrial locations. Vietnam
census  gures show that at least four million people migrated internally in the
second half of the 1990s. Estimates for China place the number of unrecorded,
circulating population at between 50 million and 120 million.3 Other GMS countries
are at di erent urbanization stages, with Laos and Cambodia at a relatively early
stage and  ailand in the process of completing the shift from a rural-based to an
urban-based society, with internal migration  ows leveling o after having peaked
in the 1980s. Interestingly, as rural residents in more urbanized countries  ock to
work in town and cities, they leave the way open for rural dwellers of less urbanized
countries in the sub-region to migrate across border and  nd work in the deserted
agricultural sector (see further chapter 4).
As the most advanced in the shift from an agricultural to a production and export-
driven economy,  ailand has the most diversi ed industrial base in the sub-region,
with Vietnam and Yunnan following at a distance. Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar
lag much further behind, in spite of initial successes with commercial agriculture,
tourism and selected export industries.  e di erent stages of industrialization
of countries in the GMS also create a di erentiated sub-regional labor market:
ailand faces a labor shortage in certain low-skilled sectors, while Laos, Cambodia
and Myanmar face an unskilled labor surplus due to rural poverty, underdeveloped
infrastructure and low or poor-quality education.  ese di erent conditions are
accompanied by disparities in incomes. As a country with a middle-income status,
ailand is clearly advantaged when compared to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar,
all countries that to this day are among the 14 least developed countries of Asia.
ailand’s per capita GNP ($2,291) is 12 times higher than that of Cambodia, seven
times greater than Laos, and six times more than Myanmar.4 e higher incomes
and wage levels, together with the growing demand for low-skilled labor in  ailand,
make the country a magnet for the large, poorly trained and impoverished rural
population of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
3 Le Bach Duong. “Social Exclusion among Rural-urban Migrants in Vietnam: Diagnosing the Need for New
Aprroaches in Social Protection.” Unpublished Document.
4 J.W. Huguet & S. Punpuing. (2005). International Migration in Thailand. Bangkok: International
Organization for Migration.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region14
Migration to  ailand is further strengthened by the dramatic demographic
di erences within the GMS. Sixty percent of the Cambodian population and 50
percent of those in Laos are aged less than 20 years, while  ailands percentage of
youth population is about 30 percent. In addition, the average annual growth rate
of the population in  ailand is now only 0.8 percent compared to averages of
1.2 to 2.4 percent in neighboring countries.5 Di erences in projected population
growth rates for 2000-2010 are even wider for people in the work-force age (15-
39), respectively 3.0 percent for Cambodia, 2.9 percent for Laos, 1.3 percent for
Myanmar and zero growth for  ailand.  is implies that the number of  ais
newly entering the labor force is declining, while in neighboring countries the youth
populations are expanding and placing tremendous pressure on the economy to
absorb ever larger numbers of labor force entrants each year.
e oversupply of young and cheap labor in the region has not passed unobserved
and industries that rely on low-cost, physically taxing, and relatively unskilled labor,
such as the textile industry, have moved from the more advanced economies of Asia to
poorer countries in the GMS.  e establishment of these industries spurs movement
both within and among countries with, for example, Chinese workers increasingly
moving to Cambodia to work in factories often owned by Chinese businesses. In some
cases, such as in  ailand, these industries establish themselves at border locations in
order to take advantage of abundant and low-cost labor in neighboring countries and
this again facilitates cross-border movement.
Regional economic and demographic di erences are complemented by social
development disparities in driving migration  ows. GMS countries di er markedly
in their level of education, health, and other social and human development
indicators (see table 1). For example, maternal and infant mortality is strikingly high
in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia when compared to neighboring  ailand. Formal
social protection and safety nets are also inadequately distributed, covering fewer
than 10 percent of the population in the majority of GMS countries, and, with a
growing emphasis on privatization, are less robust overall. Poor quality and limited
services, particularly in education and health, in the poorest GMS countries are
major forces behind the creation of an unskilled and poor workforce and constitute
a push factor for migration to  ailand, a country where services, albeit di cult to
access for migrants, are at least available and of a higher quality.
e inequities emerging from uneven regional integration in the GMS are
articulated not only along geo-political borders, but also according to the very real
boundaries of ethnic identity and gender.  e bene ts and opportunities brought
by trade liberalization, improved cross-national transportation networks and new
communications technologies often do not reach the more than 100 ethnic groups
populating the GMS. Many of these groups live in the uplands on both sides of
the borders, and have their own speci c cultures, languages, and social systems,
and long-standing ethnic-based social networks that span the historically recent
demarcation of national borders.  is cultural richness, which is also a testimony
to the shared cultural heritage and interconnected history of GMS countries, is not
5 Ibid.
15Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows
fully appreciated by governments. In general, it can be said, that GMS governments
are wary of the long history of inter-ethnic tensions and con icts, and in promoting
national identity have often adopted exclusionary policies in favor of the majority
population, leaving minority communities marginalized and without full access
to citizenship, basic education, health services and labor protection. Furthermore,
the targeting of mountainous border areas for road construction, logging and
development of large hydro-electric dams have led to a loss of habitat and bio-diversity
upon which ethnic communities depend for their livelihoods. As a result of these and
many other factors, poverty and exclusion within the sub-region tend to correlate with
ethnicity and minority status. In all countries, ethnic minority groups fare worse than
majority populations on almost every indicator of well-being, and have the highest
6 Data compiled from ADB Regional Cooperation Strategy and Program Update (2006-2008).
Table 1: Social Indicators of GMS Countries6
Item Latest Year
Cambodia China Lao PDR Myanmar ailand Vietnam
Total Fertility
Rate (births per
3.7 (2004) 1.8
4.8 (2002) 2.9 (2001) 1.8 (2002) 2.3
Mortality Ratio
(per 100,000 live
437.0 (200) 50.0 (2001) 530.0 (2000) 100.0 Urban
/180.0 Rural
24.0 (2002) 165.0 (2002)
Infant Mortality
Ratio (per 1,000
live births)
96.0 (2002) 31.0 (2002) 87.0 (2002) 48.3 Urban
/50.1 Rural
22.0 (2002) 30.0 (2002)
expectancy at
- Female 63.4 (2004) 73.2 (2002) 56.0 (2002) 63.9 (2001) 74.9 (2002) 71.4 (2002)
- Male 57.2 (2004) 68.8 (2002) 53.0 (2002) 61.0 (2001) 69.9 (2002) 66.7 (2002)
Adult Literacy
73.6 (2004) 90.9 (2002) 66.4 (2002) 91.8 (2001) 92.6 (2000) 90.3 (2002)
- Female 64.1 (2004) 86.5 (2002) 56.0
91.4 (2001) 90.5 (2000) 86.9 (2002)
- Male 84.7 (2004) 95.1 (2002) 77.0
92.2 (2001) 94.9 (2000) 93.9 (2002)
Below Poverty
35.9 (1999) 16.6 (2001) 32.7
22.9 (1997) 9.8 (2002) 29.0 (2002)
Population with
Access to Safe
Water (%)
30.0 (2000) 75.0 (2000) 37.0 (2000) 89.2 Urban /
65.8 Rural
97.0 Urban
/ 91.0 Rural
56.0 (2002)
with Access to
Sanitation (%)
21.0 (2000) 40.0 (2001) 30.0 (2000) 83.6 Urban
/56.5 Rural
99.5 Urban
/ 97.0 Rural
47.0 (2000)
Human Poverty
74 (2002) 24 (2002) 66 (2002) 45 (2002) 22 (2002) 39 (2001)
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region16
rates of poverty, illiteracy, and maternal and child mortality. Feeling constrained in
their own country, many decide to cross borders in hopes of improving or achieving
stability in their lives.7 Attaining a better future abroad is, however, not always
feasible.  eir disadvantaged position at home makes ethnic minorities particularly
vulnerable to exploitation during the migration process, and a disproportionate
number, especially women, end up being tra cked (see chapter 3).
Women generally are also at a disadvantage, as prevailing gender attitudes often do
not allow them to bene t from the new opportunities created by regionalization and
industrialization.  e process of feminization of poverty in the region, with two-thirds
of the poor in rural areas and in new urban settings being women, is leading to a
growing feminization of both the work force in emerging industries and of migration
ows, with an increasing number of women migrating internally and abroad.  e
gender breakdown for registered migrants from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar
in  ailand indicates that in the course of the last eight years the percentage of
migrant women has grown from about 30 percent in 1998 to about 45 percent in
2005, with Lao migrant women actually outnumbering migrant men (see table 2).
e growth of manufacturing and other industries provides a broader array of
employment alternatives for women in the region, especially those who previously
lived in the countryside, attracting them to leave for the cities and for other countries
in search of more autonomy and a better future for themselves and their families.
However, a long history of societal attitudes of discrimination and subordination,
as re ected in education disparities and the biased structure of the labor sector,
still persists in determining the sectors in which women are employed and the job
7 Dang Nguyen Anh & S. Chantavanich (2004). Uprooting People for their own Good? Human Displacement,
resettlement and traffi cking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. Hanoi: Social Sciences Publishing
Photo 2:
for Textile
Factories in
17Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows
conditions under which they work. Having fewer occupational skills than men in
their cohorts, leads women to  nd work in sectors where they are more vulnerable
to exploitation, such as textiles, domestic work and prostitution; or it limits them to
lower-level jobs. Gender biases are re ected in lower wages, greater exploitation,
and less legal protection for women workers and migrants when compared to their
male counterparts. In addition, even with more economic opportunities, women
are still expected to ful ll the traditional female roles in the household, taking care
of parents, husbands, and children, thus increasing the burden and stress on many.
e low status of women and girls also makes them vulnerable to tra cking, not
only for sexual purposes, but also for servitude in domestic work, sweatshop labor,
unsafe agricultural work and other sectors. Although it is di cult to arrive at reliable
numbers, there are indications that tra cking at di erent stages of the migration
process is growing in the GMS.
III. Labor Migration Flows
e economic, demographic, and socio-cultural divides caused by uneven
development provide the backdrop for labor migration dynamics in the GMS, and
a ect the volume and composition of the three major kinds of  ows, internal, across
borders in the sub-region, and further abroad.  ese di erent types of movement are
linked and it is often di cult to di erentiate among them because they often overlap
and involve many of the same people. Discussions of migration in the GMS have
often referred to the “one-step two-step” dynamics of migration, which describes how
experiences of internal and temporary migration support decisions to migrate across
borders or further abroad, and for longer periods of time. Many of those who move
across borders frequently move within their destination country, while those who
migrate abroad often do not go back to their origin communities when they return
Table 2: 1998-2005 Registered Migrants per Sex and Nationalities in Thailand (Ministry of Labor)
Yea r Burmese Cambodians Laotians Total Tot al
Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female
1998 59,968
(31%) 99,974
2000 58,701
(33%) 99,656
2001 257,354
(43%) 568,249
2002 192,169
(43%) 408,339
2003 134,812
(45%) 288,780
2004 335,558
(44%) 814,247
2005 375,729
(44%) 705,293
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region18
As elsewhere in the world, most migration in the GMS takes place within national
borders. In Cambodia, for example, it is estimated that 35 percent of the total
population are internal migrants who mostly move short distances within their
province, while intra-regional migration, mainly to  ailand, involves less than
two percent of the population.  is mass internal migration, which, as previously
mentioned, is spurred by industrialization and infrastructural growth, increasingly
consists of people moving from rural and often remote areas to cities and other
industrial and tourism destinations. Following the same path as  ailand forty
years ago, the other GMS countries are currently shifting from an agricultural and
primarily seasonal male migration pattern to an increasingly female and longer-
term migration pattern to ful ll the demands of the service and export industry
driven economy and labor markets. Cambodia’s recent economic growth has been
driven largely by its garment and textile industry, which employs over 200,000
largely female migrants from rural areas. Similar trends are emerging in other
GMS countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.
Such industries, however, are particularly vulnerable to  uctuations in the global
economic market and the impact of geo-political decisions. As a result, rapid growth
may come abruptly to a halt, forcing workers to look for other opportunities in
the country and abroad. For example, the tightening of sanctions against the
Myanmar regime over the last several years has had major impacts on the previously
rapidly expanding textile industry there. Many young women, drawn from rural areas
to work in peri-urban based textile factories, lost their jobs. Some migrated further,
and there were reports of a number being economically pressured to enter the sex
More generally, as cities, towns and other economic centers reach their absorptive
capacity, and internal migrants feel that working and living conditions are no
longer tolerable, further relocation of labor may take place to other industrial areas
or abroad.  ose living close to borders, and far from cities, may opt to directly
cross borders to take advantage of the many Export Processing Zones (EPZ) and
trading markets that have cropped up in border areas. Typically, until very recently,
rural-to-urban laborers in the GMS who decided to pursue international migration
would have two main choices: 1) migrating within the GMS by crossing borders on
their own, or 2) migrating further abroad under o cial labor export programs. In
most cases, the  rst option has been and still is the preferred choice.
e emerging transnational trend for the sub-region is intra-regional cross-border
migration, most of it involving undocumented and low-skilled migrants and
managed through an informal network of family, friends and brokers.8 Interviews
and qualitative research provide us with some sense of these intra-regional  ows, but
assessing their exact extent is far from easy, as o cial documentation generally does
not exist, and quoted  gures are often inconsistent. Governments, with the quali ed
exception of  ailand, are rarely able to provide clear statistics on the number of
cross-border migrants and of those who have legal documents, have overstayed,
are working outside of the visa status or have entered the country illegally. Data
mostly comes from small-scale research. Nonetheless, MMN has tried to provide
8 On the legal status and skill levels of intra-regional migration, see chapters 3 and 4.
19Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows
estimates of the numbers involved by collating information from multiple sources.
e numbers vary greatly, with conservative estimates in 2005 ranging from 1.8 to
4 million intra-regional cross border migrants in the GMS. It is generally accepted
that the largest migration  ow, accounting for about 70 percent of the total
movement, is from Laos, Cambodia and especially Myanmar, to  ailand, with
the remaining percentage migrating to their closest neighboring country, and
eventually transiting to a further location (see  gure 6).
O cial, and far from complete,  gures from the annual registration e orts
undertaken by the  ai government indicate that in 2004  ai employers requested
work permits for nearly 1.6 million undocumented migrant employees, though only
1.2 million registered and only 815,000 were actually issued work permits. Of those
registered, 610,000 were from Burma, 105,000 from Cambodia and 100,000 from
Laos.9 No  gures are available for the signi cant numbers of persons born
in Vietnam who have been living in  ailand for decades, but are still not fully
recognized as citizens, or for the growing number of Chinese irregular migrants.
e main industries employing migrant labor in  ailand are domestic work,
construction, commercial agriculture,  shing, and service industries.  e speci cs
of migrant labor in these employment sectors will be discussed in chapter 4,
but for now it is important to note that the economic sectors in which migrants
tend to concentrate operate throughout the country, thus resulting in a widespread
distribution of migrants in urban, semi-urban, coastal and rural areas. Twenty
percent of migrants, mostly employed in domestic, construction and service work,
are in Bangkok, with a large majority of the remaining migrant population
Figure 6:
Major Intra-
Flows in the
9 For more information on the registration process, see chapter 3.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region20
Figure 7:
of Registered
Migrants in
concentrated in the Central, North and South regions close to the border with
Myanmar, where  shing and sh-processing industries and other export-based
industries are located (see  gure 7).
ailand is not the only receiving country in the GMS.  ough in much smaller
numbers, all other GMS countries also host workers from their GMS neighbors.
Cambodia has signi cant long-term Vietnamese and Chinese populations,
mostly concentrated in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Over 150,000 Vietnamese
are estimated to be residing in Cambodia with a large proportion coming from
bordering provinces.  is population is mixed in with the roughly 1.1 million
Vietnamese immigrants who relocated to Cambodia between 1985 and 1998 and
are still considered irregular. Vietnamese males work in construction and the
service industry and many Vietnamese women work in the entertainment industry.
Chinese immigrants di er in that they normally work with a contract and have a
relatively higher status as semi-skilled and skilled workers.
e Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi have received workers from Laos,
Myanmar and Vietnam. With the normalization of relations between China and its
neighbors in the 1980s and the successive phase of regional integration, Yunnan,
historically one of the three main Chinese provinces sending migrants to Southeast
Asia, has increasingly become a recipient of migrants from Myanmar, Laos and
21Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows
Vietnam. Laos hosts Vietnamese,  ai and Chinese workers, who work in both
professional and low-status types of jobs, with many arriving with  ai and Chinese
companies investing in the country. A limited number of migrants from China also
travel to Myanmar and settle near the border, in trading cities or in labor settlements
established by Chinese companies.
Not only do migrants travel to neighboring countries as a  nal destination, they also
use them as transit countries before going to other countries within the sub-region
or elsewhere. Vietnam is a gateway for migrants from China to Cambodia and Laos.
Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are in turn transit countries for migrants from Vietnam
and China making their way to  ailand. For a small proportion of migrants to
ailand, ailand is also a transit point to Myanmar, Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore
and other countries.
Albeit still poorly documented, the fragmented information on the  ows brie y
described above shows a complex reality of increasing intra-regional migration.
Today GMS countries have become closely connected to each other through cross-
border labor migration  ows. Each of them has become, to di erent degrees,
sending, transit, and destination countries for workers from the sub-region.  e
growing intra-regional  ows have been mainly irregular, but this may soon change
as GMS countries embark on o cially exporting workers to ensure an economic
boost of foreign remittances and a better management of migration  ows. A notable
signal of this change was the signing by  ailand of bilateral agreements with
Laos (2002), Cambodia (2003) and Myanmar (2003) to import 100,000 workers
from each country with the logistics subcontracted to labor recruiting agencies
overseen by government institutions (see further chapter 3).
Until these agreements become operational, however, o cial labor exports in
the GMS remain limited to the sending of laborers outside of the GMS to richer
economies in Southeast and East Asia and in decreasing numbers to the Middle
East.  e largest exporter is  ailand having o cially deployed approximately
170,000 overseas contract workers yearly since 1995. Twenty years ago the majority of
ai workers were sent to the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia). However, today
about 85 percent of the migrants exported through bilateral agreements work in
East and Southeast Asian countries (particularly Taiwan). Of the remaining 15
percent working in the Middle East, seven percent work in Israel and the occupied
territories. Eighty-two percent of those sent abroad were male with 56 percent
between the ages of 25-35 years with only a primary school education.10 e only
major destination for female  ai contract migrants, generally with a higher level
of education than their male counterparts, is Hong Kong, where they  nd work
as domestic workers. Japan, traditionally a signi cant destination for regular and
irregular women migrants working mostly in the entertainment sector, has been
sharply declining in importance due to competition with other labor-supplying
countries and a crack-down by the government to reduce irregular migration.
10 J.W. Huguet & S. Punpuing. (2005). International Migration in Thailand. Bangkok: International
Organization for Migration.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region22
Labor export to peninsular Southeast Asia and East Asia is also increasingly being
pursued by the Vietnamese government.  e number of contract workers was
70,594 in 2005, with an increase of 4.7 percent as compared to 2004, and a 100 percent
increase when compared to 2001, of which the majority was sent to Taiwan and
Malaysia and to a lesser extent Japan and Korea.11 Myanmar has also expanded the
export of labor, with many workers  nding work as seamen in the global maritime
e growing interest for stronger economies in East and Southeast Asia in GMS
migrants who have somewhat higher entrepreneurial skills is also re ected in a
parallel  ow of irregular migration.  ere are rough estimates of close to 100,000
ai who overstayed their visas or took employment not permitted by their visa,
particularly in East and Southeast Asia (with the majority in Taiwan, Japan and
Singapore). Reports of others, primarily from Cambodia and Vietnam, migrating to
Malaysia and Singapore as well as East Asia are increasingly common.
e research summarized above shows that migration within the GMS, and from
the GMS to other countries, is structured along a chain in which unskilled and
irregular workers move from weaker economies to relatively stronger economies in
the sub-region, and slightly more skilled, and generally more regular, migrants move
to the even stronger economies in Asia. In Asia cross-border migrants most often
complement rather than compete with local labor. As will be discussed in details in
chapter 4, intra-regional cross-border migrants from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia
tend to work in occupations that are no longer attractive for local workers in  ailand
because of the low wages and status and the poor working conditions.  e same
comparisons are found between  ailand and Vietnam and East Asia where  ai
and Vietnamese workers  ll the demand for low-skilled and semi-skilled labor in
East Asian nations necessary to sustain the development of small and medium size
businesses amidst a diminishing and aging local labor force.
IV. The Future of GMS Migration
How the dynamics of migration in the GMS will change in the future is di cult to
predict, especially considering the weak evidence base and the rapid pace of change
in the sub-region. Based on what we have learned from our programming and
a review of relevant sources, we can, however, speculate on a number of probable
First, the GMS development strategy towards increased regionalization will
continue to facilitate exchanges in the GMS of commodities as well as labor. With the
fast-growing and labor-short economy in  ailand and large unemployed working
age populations elsewhere in GMS, labor migration will likely increase throughout
ailand, in pace with increased regionalization and expansion of infrastructure.
e World Bank and the Asia Development Bank have assumed this trend in their
assessment of the socioeconomic impacts of regional integration in their attempts
to identify potentially negative e ects of the GMS development strategy, while
11 Central Institute for Economic Management (CIEM) (2006) Vietnam’s Economy in 2005. Hanoi: The
Publishing House of Political Theory.
23Inequitable Regional Development Drives Migration Flows
supporting governments to develop a fairer environment for legal labor migration.12
A problem in this context is the unwillingness of the Myanmar government to
even recognize the occurrence of migration from the country. If the political and
economic situation there is not resolved, the large migration  ows from Myanmar
to  ailand and elsewhere will continue unabated.
Second, in the longer term other countries may begin to attract greater numbers of
GMS migrants.  ough Yunnan and Vietnam lag behind  ailand to a considerable
degree in terms of per capita incomes and the extent of market-led industrial
development, their annual economic growth has reached impressive rates, for
example seven percent in Vietnam this year, while  ailand managed only  ve
percent. In addition, the two Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guanxi, although
much poorer compared to the rest of China, may become an attractive transit
destination to migrants as gateways to other provinces in China.
ird, China may not only become a receiving country, but it may also become a
major source of labor for the GMS in view of its large population numbers, the
relatively lower capacity of absorption of its labor market, and its increasing role in
stimulating trade in the GMS. Disadvantaged ethnic populations in China’s border
areas, if not integrated into the new emerging economy, may look for opportunities
across the borders, or may become vulnerable to tra cking, as research indicates
has already been happening. As Chinese business expands in the region, and in
view of the preferred practice of Chinese  rms to bring workers from their own
countries, especially to  ll managerial positions, it is to be expected that larger
numbers of workers and businessmen from China will be working in the GMS.  is
trend is already becoming visible in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
Fourth, we can anticipate that the composition of migration  ows will change.  ere
will be more women involved in cross-border migration as well as a larger proportion
of the poorest populations.  is will occur because of the decreasing cost of migration
in conjunction with more developed cross-border social networks, and the growing
market for imported unskilled labor in industrializing countries. In view of the
heightened vulnerability of women and poor migrants on a number of dimensions,
it will be essential to start putting in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure their
Finally, in exporting labor to East Asia and peninsular Southeast Asia,  ailand,
Vietnam and other GMS countries will face increasing wage competition from other
Asian labor-supplying countries, such as Bangladesh and Indonesia, which could
reduce labor deployment as has happened in the past for the Middle East. Exporting
labor within the sub-region, however, may become more common, requiring the
formulation of comprehensive intra-regional policies that not only manage  ows, but
also ensure the well-being of migrants.  at said, whether contract labor becomes
a more common form of migration or not, governments will still need to pay more
attention to the situation of millions of irregular and unskilled cross-border migrants
already working in the sub-region.
12 P.Y. Fallavier, et al. (2005). “Greater Mekong Subregion Labor Migration Program: Impacts and Regulation
of Labor Migration in the GMS.” Unpublished paper presented at the World Bank Workshop, Bangkok,
March 24, 2006..
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region24
Photo 3:
Queues at the
in Myanmar
Leading to
Mae Sot in Tak
Province of
Migration in the Shadow of the Law
I. Unregulated Migration Exposes Migrants to Risks
e rapid progress achieved by GMS countries in integrating trade and
infrastructure has failed to include the integration and regulation of the labor
market in the sub-region.  is does not imply that policy makers and international
donors are not aware of the realities of migration in the GMS and its close links with
market and infrastructural integration. On the contrary, they are conscious of the
importance of migrant labor for regional development.  e “free ow of people” is
often mentioned as a goal of regional integration in o cial documents, as for example
in the following quote from one of ADB’s program strategy papers: “the objective is
a highly e cient system—allowing for goods and people to travel freely around the
GMS without signi cant impediment, excessive cost, or delay.13 Still, when it comes
to the realization of this broad goal through harmonization of visa processes and
removal of barriers to movement, only the  ows of tourists, students, and highly
skilled labor are taken into account, without any provision for the main  ow of
unskilled migrants across borders.
On the occasions when labor movements, other than those of the highly skilled, are
referred to, it is in the context of forced migration or tra cking, indeed a serious
problem in the region, but one of much smaller proportion when compared to
voluntary migration  ows. All GMS governments have expressed their commitment
to  ght tra cking of people, as re ected in a recent regional Memorandum of
Understanding and the establishment of the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial
Initiative against Tra cking (COMMIT) in 2004, but they have been careful not to
emphasize links with labor migration.  is is despite the fact, as it will be argued
below, that the two are clearly connected.  e focus of proposed intra-regional action
has centered on sexual exploitation and tra cking into prostitution, ignoring the
more di use form of tra cking for general labor purposes, and blurring the
distinction between forced and voluntary sex work. At times, tra cking has even
been pictured as equivalent to irregular migration, which reinforces calls for harsh
security and border control measures to protect potential victims, and delays dealing
with the much more di cult policy question of how to regulate voluntary labor  ows
13 Asian Development Bank. (2005). Building on Success: GMS Flagship Programs and Development
Matrix. ADB Website: accessed on September,
6, 2006.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region26
and protect the much larger number of voluntary migrants. As noted earlier, the
policy summit meeting organized with Foundation support by the Mekong Institute
last February was the  rst to facilitate dialogue among high-level government
representatives and other stakeholders on the need for coordinated migration
policies and interventions on human and developmental terms. But institutionalized
venues for continuing such important interaction have yet to be established.
To date no clear policies on intra-Mekong labor migration and migrant protection
have been formulated at the regional level, and no system has been put in place to
regulate the increased  ows of workers for the region as a whole. At the bilateral
level, agreements signed by  ailand with its neighbors have yet to be put into full
e ect and therefore their value is for future migrants rather than for current ones
(see discussion below). Most countries, including  ailand, do indeed have
provisions for professionals to legally enter the country with work permits, but those
provisions do not apply to unskilled or low-skilled workers notwithstanding the
great demand for this category of worker. In addition, in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam
and China it is illegal to leave the country without notifying the authorities, and
returnees face  nes, detention or rehabilitation on arrival if caught.
e policy environment leaves intra-regional cross-border migrants, with the
exception of a handful of professionals, with little option but to migrate through
irregular means or become irregular in successive phases of the migration process.14
In  ailand, the country with the major in ux of migrants from neighboring
countries, there are claims that 90 percent of the estimated two to three million
migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos are irregular and about half are without
any legal and valid travel documents.  e actual numbers of irregular migrants
elsewhere in the GMS are harder to determine since scant data are available, but
from research the Foundation has supported it is clear that irregularity is a common
feature of migrants throughout the GMS. While the irregular status of migrants is
often tolerated, and indeed to a certain extent encouraged, as this report makes clear,
that status places migrants at risk of exploitation and exposes them to vulnerability
on several levels. For many of those pro ting from the migration system—although
pointedly not for the migrants themselves—risk and vulnerability can be a valued
aspect of the system. In the legal shadows there are large pro ts to be made at origin,
transit and destination points.
Migrants travel through di erent routes, usually starting in their home communities,
stopping at various places on the way, before reaching the borders.  e duration of
the travel varies depending on proximity to the border location, the quality of the
infrastructure, and the measure of control of the national government. Along the
way, migrants experience many challenges, including having to pay bribes to
authorities on both sides of the border, deception by brokers, physical and sexual
abuse, exhaustion and hunger, arrest and con nement, and accident, injury and
even death. In this journey, members of ethnic minorities moving from Vietnam to
Cambodia, and especially those that migrate from Myanmar to  ailand, are exposed
14 As a conceptual or legal category, irregular (or illegal) migration generally refers to various kinds of
movement that include among other things, illegal entry, overstaying visas, remaining as a rejected
asylum-seeker, engaging in prohibited work, and being sans papiers (or undocumented). In a single
journey or process of migration, a migrant might enter into and out of irregularity at various points.
27Migration in the Shadow of the Law
to relatively greater risks in their e orts to migrate because of restrictive political
Contrary to the hardships of the internal journey, physical borders as such do not
present a major challenge to migrants, since in the GMS they are long and porous. If
people cannot go through the o cial checkpoints, they can access, with the help of
relatives, friends or brokers, the many uno cial entry points at river crossings, local
piers, and mountain routes. O cial check-points have only recently been set up, and
there is a long history in the region of ethnic groups, and other upland populations,
living on both sides of a border and moving freely back and forth.
Most migrants in the GMS do not have passports or identity cards, since the process
to obtain them is di cult, lengthy and costly. GMS migrants enter a receiving country
without documents, or with only a one-day permit that can be obtained at selected
o cial border crossings by showing an identity card, without the need of a passport.
Some may carry or later acquire fake identity or travel documents. Very few come
as tourists and overstay their visas. Maintaining documentation is also an issue.
Migrants have reported con scation or loss of their legal documents to military,
immigration authorities or employers, and it is di cult and costly to apply for new
identity documents, especially if they have to  rst go back to their own country.
Typically, migrants will use personal contacts or informal intermediaries and brokers
to navigate their passage. It is after crossing the border that the majority turn to
more established informal recruiting networks for passage further into the interior
where jobs are considered to be better.  ese uno cial recruiting systems, though
operating in the shadows of the law, are in place throughout the GMS to facilitate
the hiring process. In responding to the increasingly competitive market, employers
are willing to engage underground recruitment channels and pay local o cials bribes
to accommodate irregular workers in order to ensure cheap labor. Recruiters’ fees
in  ailand range from Baht 3,000 to 24,000 (approximately $80–640), depending on
the route, distance and services provided.  e vast majority of migrants are unable
Photo 4:
Across the
Mekong River,
is Easily
from Vientiane,
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region28
to pay recruiters’ fees in advance and consequently begin their employment in debt.
Migrants consistently report that their jobs and debt were negotiated and agreed to
verbally, with terms and conditions rarely explained in any detail. E orts to negotiate
with recruiters and employers are di cult due to language di erences and, with
limited options for locating other work, migrants often have to endure exploitative
conditions until debt is repaid, su cient savings accumulated, and more reliable
recruiting networks identi ed to assist in the search for alternative jobs.
When migrating through informal channels, migrants not only rely on these networks
to transport them directly to jobs, but also to facilitate communication and the sending
of remittances to those back home.  e loss or con scation of documentation also
forces migrants to pay recruiters to assist them in  nding substitute documents or
in helping them return without having to cross checkpoints to avoid  nes, arrest or
detention. As a result, the uno cial recruitment system has a strong in uence on
the migrants and on the migration process.  e recruiters clearly bene t from and are
sustained by the system: the more migrants remain in irregular status, the more the
recruiting networks prosper.
For the migrants themselves irregularity presents serious risks. Not only, as following
chapters will show, do they  nd themselves in vulnerable work and living conditions,
but they also risk being arrested and deported from the receiving country, and even
being arrested on return for violating their countries’ travel laws when they left.
Research shows that irregular migrants are targeted for prosecution more often than
recruiters, brokers, tra ckers or employers. In  ailand, workers without a work
permit risk arrest and deportation. GMS migrants are by far the largest number of
those detained in immigration centers and of those deported from  ailand. Under
a project supported by the Foundation, IOM noted a steady increase in the number
of GMS migrants detained from 1999 to 2004 in the Bangkok International Detention
Center. From 1999 to 2002, of the total of 176,777 persons detained, 164,216 were from
the four countries of Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and China, with an average of 41,000 a
year from these countries being detained. In 2003 alone, the number of GMS nationals
was 57,558 and in the  rst half of 2004 it had already reached 39,963. While in the past
the highest numbers by far were from Myanmar, followed by Cambodia, Laos and
China, in 2003 Myanmar and Cambodia had almost an equal number detained, and
in the  rst half of 2004 Cambodia had surpassed Myanmar, re ecting the increase in
migration  ows from Cambodia in more recent years.  is also suggests that recent
migrants experience a higher degree of risk when compared to migrants who have
stayed longer in the country and have learned to navigate the system.
Deportation numbers are close to detention numbers, with deportation being carried
out informally by bringing deportees to the border and allowing them to walk across
so as to reduce complications on the other side. In addition to arrest or  nes for
illegally leaving the country, returnees, especially if from Myanmar, may be refused
entrance if they cannot prove that they are indeed citizens of that country, not an
unusual circumstance considering their lack of valid documents or even statelessness.
More generally, being deported is rarely a deterrent to trying to re-migrate.
Deported migrants attempting to cross back over the border in order to gather their
belongings, collect unpaid earnings or return to work through brokers who emerge
once the authorities have left.
29Migration in the Shadow of the Law
II. Statelessness and Traffi cking Compound Irregularity
e irregularity of migrants in the GMS is compounded not only by the lack of
identity and travel documents for a large portion of o cial citizens, but also
by statelessness and tra cking.  e great diversity of migrants without de ned
citizenship often passes unobserved since existing data on irregular GMS migrants
are fragmented and are not disaggregated according to ethnicity (only nationality).
Still, Foundation grantees have consistently highlighted the large numbers of ethnic
minority people among irregular migrants in the GMS.  ese persons often do not
have citizenship in their countries of origin. Given that ethnic minority populations
live predominantly along border areas, and that, as previously mentioned, they
often live in disadvantaged conditions, it is not surprising that they make up a large
proportion of the irregular migrant population, with migrants to  ailand from a
multitude of ethnic groups in Myanmar representing the greatest numbers.  e
worrisome issue is that they are often not recognized as citizens by their country
of origin and are therefore precluded from acquiring identity and travel documents
necessary for migrating in a regular status.
In  ailand some of these people have, in fact, rarely if ever moved.  ey have been
living in the border area for generations, but they are still not considered citizens.
e ai Ministry of Interior in 2000 reported that only half of an estimated one
million persons from minority populations born in the country had obtained  ai
citizenship. Interestingly, a factor holding back e orts to grant citizenship to those
who were born in the country is the government’s di culty in di erentiating between
old and new arrivals, between “citizens” and “irregular migrants” from the same
ethnic community. In Myanmar, the 40-year con ict between the military regime
and ethnic minority populations not only has led to the internal displacement of
hundreds of thousands of members of ethnic minorities and to their  ight abroad,
but has also impeded e orts for these groups to obtain citizenship documentation.
Photo 5:
Migrants from
Myanmar being
Deported En
Masse from
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region30
With the exception of the over 135,000 ethnic minority refugees sheltered inde nitely
in camps on the  ai side of the Myanmar border, all others are considered “irregular”
with no particular allegiance to any nation, except for their ethnic community.
Whether these people are “asylum seekers” or “economic migrants” is a point of
contention, with the reality for the majority of them probably being somewhere in
the middle, since it is a mix of political and economic reasons that has pushed them
into irregularity abroad and is preventing them from going back. As in the situation
with Myanmar, it is also not always clear whether political or economic reasons
have compelled the recent movements of Hmong from Laos to  ailand, but, again,
both the  ai and the Lao governments are hesitant to consider them refugees. In
Cambodia, migrants from Vietnamese upland minorities are when possible ignored
due to sensitivities with both the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments, with
neither eager to claim them as their citizens.
Not only are ethnic minorities particularly vulnerable to statelessness, but children
of migrants also su er the same vulnerability. Irrespective of ethnic background,
they are stateless because of their lack of documentation at birth in the destination
country, or because they migrated prior to the age of eligibility for identity cards
or passports.15 Research and grantee reports note that a growing number of children
born to migrants outside their country of origin do not have any documentation
or identi cation. Over 93,000 children under the age of 15 from neighboring
countries were recorded in  ailand in 2004.16 Many of them are unable to
negotiate identity or citizenship of any country since even their parents’ country
does not recognize them.  is lack of identity and citizenship entitlements has
serious implications limiting future education and work opportunities for these
children in destination as well as sending countries and exposes them to
Another extremely exploited group of migrants are those that have been tra cked.
Tra cking may occur at various points of the migration process, at recruitment, on
transit and on arrival, by means of threat or violence, but more generally by fraud
and deception.  is takes many forms. As the United Nations Inter-Agency Project
on Human Tra cking in the GMS, a partner in a number of Foundation’s activities
in the region, notes:
In the GMS, children are tra cked from Cambodia to beg or sell  owers
on the streets of  ailand. Adults and young people in search of better
opportunities come to  ailand from Myanmar, Lao PDR and Cambodia
and  nd themselves in factories, brothels, houses or  shing boats, in debt
bondage or physically unable to escape. Single Vietnamese women go to
China in search of marriage, to  nd themselves sold as domestic slaves.
Newly married Vietnamese women go to Taiwan to  nd their husband is
actually a pimp. Chinese boys, and increasingly those on the other side
15 S. Chantavanich, et al. (2006). Report to World Bank on Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong
Subregion. Bangkok: Asian Research Center for Migration, Chulalongkorn University.
16 J.W. Huguet & S. Punpuing. (2005). International Migration in Thailand. Bangkok: International
Organization for Migration.
31Migration in the Shadow of the Law
of the Vietnamese and Myanmar borders, are stolen to be sold to those
looking to adopt a son.17
How many persons are tra cked annually in the GMS is not known, with estimates
ranging from 200,000 to 450,000 for women and children, and no information on
the number of men. Preliminary research corroborates, however, that  ailand has
become a major hub for tra cking from neighboring countries to  ailand and
abroad, and that ethnic minority people form a large proportion of those tra cked.
Tra cking networks span the entire region, linking organized crime structures to
individuals, including victims’ relatives and friends, who often act out of poverty and
despair. Interventions to target these source communities have focused on enhancing
their understanding of tra cking and establishing protection mechanisms, often
failing to address economic and gender disparities conducive to exploitation, and
leading to the displacement of tra cking to other localities, rather than to an overall
reduction. Controversial rescue e orts by international organizations in Cambodia,
and to a lesser extent  ailand, have also had negative results, with the victims
being repatriated against their will rather than assisted. As UNIAP, IOM and other
Foundation partners argue, it is time for GMS countries to recognize that tra cking
requires a comprehensive long-term strategy. Besides focusing on the structural
vulnerability of the victims and their communities, such a strategy must include e orts
to reduce demand through labor law enforcement and must ensure mechanisms for
safe migration through regularization of migration  ows.
III. Regularizing Migration
e increasing concern by academic and civil society groups with the many
problems related to irregular migration, especially in its most extreme forms, is
leading to a call for governments to revisit their attitudes and approaches.  ailand is
often pointed out as an emblematic case of the ambiguous stand taken by receiving
countries. Confronted with increasing numbers of migrants and persistent demand
for unskilled cross-border labor from almost all economic sectors,  ailand has
decided to register selected categories of unskilled irregular migrants for limited
periods of time, but without attempting to legalize their status. Registration only
allows employers to hire foreign workers, by requesting the granting of a work permit
to irregular workers in their employment. Attaining a work permit does not change
migrants’ illegal status, however. According to the  ai Immigration Law they remain
“illegal migrants” having entered without travel documents or having overstayed. In
this vague situation, “registered” migrants have somewhat better protection under
the labor law than “unregistered” migrants and can earn relatively higher salaries,
but their status is far from being equivalent to that of legal residents in terms of
access to education and other legal and social services, with the possible exception
of health services.  e short-term validity of the permit, in comparison to the average
length of their stay (the majority of migrants in  ailand stay more than three years
and about 30 percent over  ve years with no intention to return), also implies that
migrants go in and out of “registered” status in the course of their stay.
17 UNIAP Website:
accessed on September, 6, 2006.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region32
From 1992, the  ai government has undertaken seven migrant labor registration
schemes, the  rst of which was only for employers in ten provinces near the Myanmar
border and then, following growing demand, gradually expanded to all provinces of
the country.  e most recent scheme, as de ned in 2003, permits employment of
irregular workers between 15 and 60 years of age (but not their families), and only
from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Registration is allowed only for periods of three
months to one year for selected sectors with a limit on the numbers in each sector and
the possibility of only a single renewal. Bene ts o ered consist of a registration card,
control of wages, health insurance with premiums paid by the migrant, and proper
repatriation measures if necessary.
e success of these schemes has been mixed, covering only a portion of the actual
ow of migrants in the country, since not all employers register their workers, and
since the schemes exclude most workers in the large informal sector, especially those
who are self-employed, casual workers, new arrivals without a job, family members,
and migrants outside the age limits.  e schemes have also been challenged for being
overly complicated, expensive, with too many unclear rules, and poor coordination
of the government institutions involved. Mostly due to varying degree of e ectiveness
in the schemes’ implementation, the numbers of registered workers have  uctuated
dramatically over the years, in spite of the constant increase in government estimates
of the migrant population. In 2005, the  ai government renewed permits for 705,293
of those registered in 2004, a signi cant decrease over the previous year, though the
demand from  ai employers for migrant labor increased to over 1.8 million, up from
1.4 million in 2004. In other words, the 2005 registration e ort met only 37 percent
of employers’ demands, highlighting the reality that most migrant labor remains
irregular. MMN, working with various migrant communities in  ailand, estimated
the ratio of registered to unregistered migrants to be between 1:2 and 1:3.
e extent of employers refusing to register their migrant labor force is unknown,
but monitoring shows that it is not uncommon. It is often not in the employer’s
interest to facilitate migrants’ access to bene ts and protection under national labor
laws, particularly because the surplus of irregular labor means that others are always
available to replace current workers. Despite a provision that allows small enterprises
not to pay minimum wage if they have less than ten migrant workers, there are still
employers who are inclined not to comply with the registration in order to maintain
their cheap and (and disenfranchised) work force to, in their view, remain competitive
in regional and global markets. Long used to relying on informal channels for
outsourcing or subcontracting labor, some employers tend to deny responsibility for
labor conditions or abuses.  e limited sanctions and their infrequent application
for employers who do not register their workers also contribute to keeping in place
“unregistered” migration.
One aspect of the schemes, which is hotly debated, is the control given to the
employer in the registering of the workers. By tying the migrants’ work permit to
one speci c employer, registration of the migrant labor force has at times resulted
in increased vulnerability as the migrants fear leaving their abusive employers
and losing their work permit, having to re-register with a new employer. Employers
who register their workers and advance migrants their registration fees typically
33Migration in the Shadow of the Law
also keep the migrants’ work permits to prevent them from leaving, thus reducing
the mobility of the workers.
Migrants, on the other hand, are not always well informed or willing to undergo the
registration process, considering the very limited time period o ered and the high
costs involved (around $100, which is equivalent to one month’s salary). Other
obstacles are the compulsory health examination to determine their acceptance in
the scheme (scanning for eight diseases and for pregnancy), and the registration
constraints on changing employment and moving residence. Many also feel that the
minimal social protection o ered is not worth the registration costs.  e main barrier
is that migrants are often not permitted to leave their job, are constrained in their
choice of work place, and there are no provisions for paid sick leave. In addition,
their health insurance is not portable, being only valid in the district of registration.
If registered migrants move to other districts, as they often do, they lose the coverage
even if they have already paid for it. Many also have di culty accessing services
because of language barriers, fear of harassment or discrimination, and prohibitive
costs for services or transportation.
e many challenges in implementing the schemes pale in signi cance when
compared with the challenge of eventually returning migrants to their home countries
after their work permits expire. Somewhat unrealistically, considering that historically
most migrants stay in  ailand for a long period of time, it is assumed that migrants will
return home voluntarily. If not, they will have to be repatriated. To provide incentives
to migrants to go back, the MOUs signed with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar o er
the possibility to returnee migrants to enroll as contract workers.  e new elaborate
recruitment structure is, however, not necessarily suitable for current migrants. Part
of the process includes verifying nationality and providing travel documents to those
in irregular status before they can enroll in the program.  is process, undertaken
by origin governments, has proceeded at an extremely slow pace, with the Myanmar
government in particular not willing, or able, to verify nationality for all the reasons
explained above.  e quota under discussion—a total of 200,000 workers for the
three countries of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar—is however much smaller than the
number of migrants already in the country; thus, the lack of assurance of enrollment
discourages migrants already in  ailand from returning. No wonder the sending
governments are having di culties in  lling the quota. After more than two years from
the signing of the agreements, Laos has identi ed 38,000 workers, Cambodia 7,000,
and Myanmar has not yet been able to start despite the fact that it has the largest
numbers of migrants in  ailand.
e MOUs aim to enhance cooperation in curbing irregular migration in exchange
for legal migration opportunities. Workers admitted are expected to receive equal
treatment in wages and other bene ts as registered migrants. However, the MOUs
do not provide enforcement or redress mechanisms. Costs are also much higher
than the registration process.  e employers have to pay Baht 10,000–50,000 ($250–
1,250) for each worker—a  gure that has raised concerns that it may lead employers
to attempt obtaining the amount from workers themselves, further reducing the
choice of migrant workers to change employment.  e withholding of 15 percent of
wages by the  ai government, in order to ensure that the migrants return at the end
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region34
of their contract, is also problematic as it would reduce the already minimal incomes
of the migrants during their stay, without assurance of getting it back at a later stage,
for sure if they decide to overstay, but also because the system may be corrupt and
ine cient. No provisions are made for family reunion, pregnancy, marriage and
other personal matters, and there is no possibility of extension beyond a two-year
renewal upon return to the country of origin at the end of the  rst term.
Nonetheless, compared to other bilateral agreements in Asia, the MOUs in the GMS
seem in principle somewhat more responsive to the needs of the sending countries
and potential migrants, and for the sub-region they can be viewed as an important
rst step in recognizing the migrant situation and trying to regularize migrant  ows.
If more substantial progress is to be made in the years ahead, it will be crucial
for GMS countries to collaborate in monitoring the MOUs’ implementation and
making necessary improvements to them. In addition, they will need to develop
complementary mechanisms for the many workers currently in an irregular status.
It is improbable that the MOUs will resolve the situation, especially if the irregular
intra-regional migration  ows continue to grow as expected.  e establishment of
a comprehensive migration management system covering the many dimensions of
migration ought to be put high on the regional integration agenda to  nally transform
cross-border labor  ows in the GMS from irregular to regular and provide migrants
the legal protection they deserve.
Unskilled Migrant Labor Feeds
I. Supply and Demand of Unskilled Labor
Cross-border migration  ows in the GMS are not only unregulated, but they also
consist mainly of unskilled workers. With the exception of a limited number of
regularly employed expatriates from East Asian and Western countries who  ll
higher-skilled and professional positions, migrants in the sub-region are to a
great extent irregular and unskilled, with the intertwining of these two features
reinforcing each other and placing migrants in particularly vulnerable conditions at
the bottom of the labor market and of society. To illustrate this process, in this and
the next chapter we concentrate largely on the situation in  ailand, in part because
this country is the main destination of intra-regional migration, but also because of
the greater relative availability of research data. To some degree, however, the issues
discussed are applicable to other GMS countries.
ailand is the largest importer of unskilled labor in the sub-region. If the data on
registered migrants are any indication, the large majority of GMS migrants, and thus
also of the overall migrant population in the country, can be classi ed as “unskilled” or
“lower skilled” workers according to commonly used educational criteria. According to
ailand’s 2004 registration scheme, 74.1 percent of the applicants had less than eight
years formal education.18 e 2000  ai National Census reported illiteracy rates to
be around 30 percent for Cambodian, 40 percent for Lao, and 76 percent for Burmese
migrants, with approximately 30 percent, 33 percent and 80 percent respectively
never having attended school (see table 2).19 e striking number of migrants from
Myanmar who are illiterate and poorly schooled—partly due to the higher percentage
of ethnic minorities among migrants from Myanmar when compared with Lao
and Cambodian migrants—has far-reaching implications for the overall educational
level of the migrant population, since migrants from Myanmar constitute the largest
share of cross-border workers.  e levels of literacy and educational attainment are
not only lower in comparison to those of the  ai population, but also in comparison
18 J.W. Huguet & S. Punpuing. (2005). International Migration in Thailand. Bangkok: International
Organization for Migration.
19 A. Chamrathrithirong. (2006). “Profi le of Labor Migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos: Analysis
of the Population and Housing Census of Thailand 2000.” Unpublished paper presented at the
World Bank Workshop, Bangkok, March 24, 2006.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region36
to those of the population in the respective countries of origin. For example, among
persons aged 15–59 in Myanmar in 2001 only 20 percent of males and 30 percent of
females were illiterate, while, as reported above, the illiteracy ratio among the much
younger population of migrants from Myanmar to  ailand is three times higher.
15-59 years
Nationality of Migrants
Cambodia Laos Burma/Myanmar
Never Attended
School 30.7% 33.9% 81.0%
Attended Primary
School 46.4% 44.3% 11.7%
Attended Higher
Education 22.9% 21.8% 7.3%
Low levels of education of the migrant population are not compensated by other
forms of formal training or extensive work experience. Although systematic research
on migrants’ previous job experience is almost non-existent, from scattered data and
anecdotal observations it can be said that a majority were engaged in subsistence
agricultural activities before leaving their home country, with the remaining having
worked for a few years in the informal sector as venders, or having performed
low-skilled work in the manufacturing industry or in construction. For women, their
only previous experience often is in farm and household work, except for those who
have moved  rst to the cities to work in the manufacturing sector or in the service
e lack of formal training and relevant work experience is partly due to the young
age of the migrant population, a re ection of the demographic divide among GMS
countries as described in Chapter 2 and also a result of the greater propensity in all
populations of young people to migrate. A disproportionate number of youth and
children are migrants in the sub-region, with the average age at which they cross
borders decreasing in recent years. In  ailand, the 2004 registration data indicate
that 56 percent of the applicants were between 15 and 25 years old, with another
seven percent under the age of 15. Of those aged less than 15, 20 percent were 12–14
years old and the remaining 80 percent under the age of 12.
is young migrant work force caters to the growing demand for unskilled labor to
support industrialization, substituting for local labor. In  ailand, as in other newly
industrialized countries, relatively high incomes in the expanding manufacturing,
commercial and service sectors render jobs that are lower-paying, lower-status and
that involve harder physical work less attractive to an increasingly more educated
and smaller  ai population with broader work opportunities at its disposal. Even
for unskilled  ai workers, such jobs prove to be unattractive and they try to avoid
them, if necessary by migrating outside the sub-region where at least, for the same
kind of job, they can earn more and gain a relatively higher status on return. At
the same time, harsh competition in the regional and global market inspires labor-
intensive industries to economize by suppressing wages for lower-level jobs for which
there is abundant labor supply, thus making those jobs even less interesting to the
ai population.  e wages, however, are still relatively high compared to those in
the countries where the cross-border migrants originate, especially considering the
Table 3:
Levels of
Migrants in
(Thai Census
37Unskilled Migrant Labor Feeds Industrialization
limited employability of the migrant population, motivating them to accept any kind
of job in the hope of eventually improving their livelihoods. As a result, intra-regional
migrants come to  ll the shortage of cheap labor in  ailand as well as other more
industrialized countries in the sub-region, their lower skill levels and more modest
nancial expectations being a match to the so-called “3Ds” jobs—Dirty, Dangerous
and Di cult (some also say Disdained)—that are on o er.
II. Working at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Many of the realities faced by migrants are closely linked to the labor sectors in
which they are employed and the lower positions in which they are placed. Among
the migrants registered in  ailand in 2004, as shown in  gure 8, the majority
were concentrated in agriculture, both animal husbandry and land cultivation
(21.8 percent), domestic service (15.5 percent),  sh processing and  sheries (15.9
percent), and construction (14.7 percent).  e large category of “others,” accounting
for almost 30 percent of the migrants, is di cult to interpret as it refers to a myriad
of jobs, but research indicates that the textile and garment factories and the
entertainment industry (including also direct and indirect sex work) have
signi cant proportions of migrants.  e many “unregistered” migrants without work
permits, and the substantial number of cross-border migrants who daily commute
across the border are not included in these statistics, but research indicates that
many concentrate in the above-mentioned sectors, with the remaining working as
street venders and in other kinds of self-employment in the large informal sector.
A UNICEF-funded study found in 2003 that 600–1,100 children from Cambodia
crossed into  ailand each day at three di erent entry points to come to work in
agriculture, market stalls and in informal services such as guarding vehicles or
engaging in the sex trade in cross-border town, returning home for rest.20
Agricultural + Husbandry work
Domestic work
Fish processing
Water transportation
Rice mill, Brick factory
Ice factory
Figure 8:
of Registered
per Sector
in Thailand
(Ministry of
20 K. Angsuthanasombat, et al. (2003). Rapid Assessment on Child Labour Employment in the Border
Area between Thailand and Cambodia. Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies and United Nations
Children’s Fund.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region38
e registration data also contain some indicative information about the
concentration of migrants of di erent nationalities in di erent sectors. Migrants from
Myanmar are primarily concentrated in agriculture, and to a lesser extent domestic
work and construction; migrants from Laos are concentrated in domestic work and
to a lesser extent agriculture; and migrants from Cambodia are concentrated in the
construction and  sheries sectors and to a lesser extent in agriculture (see table
3).  ese occupational di erences are probably related to length of stay, social
networks and perception on the parts of the employers of the capabilities of workers
from a certain nationality. Language could also be a factor in explaining the growing
concentration of Lao workers (predominantly women, but also men) in domestic
service. Lao migrants speak a language similar to  ai and therefore can more easily
communicate with their employers, while other migrants speak languages very
di erent from  ai making them less employable for jobs in which communication
skills are more important. Migrants who stay longer and gradually learn  ai have
more choices in seeking employers and can move up the occupational ladder in
safer and less onerous positions, but still within the constraints of unskilled labor.
e gender of the migrants is also related to di erent occupational patterns.
Although the statistics are not disaggregated by sex, research indicates that migrant
women are concentrated in seafood processing, domestic services, and to a lesser
extent, manufacturing. Females are also sought for other types of service-oriented
work such as shop-keeping, care-giving, and entertainment work.
Sector Employer Burmese Laos Cambodia Total
Agriculture 44,811 143,793 16,795 18,816 179,404
Domestic work 88,059 88,319 31,449 8,746 128,514
Contruction 10,387 81,554 8,442 24,463 114,459
Fisheries 6,518 33,178 2,634 22,874 58,686
Fish processing 2,548 62,923 1,013 4,666 68,602
Others 43,228 183,155 37,711 22,508 243,374
Rice mill 778 6,471 266 186 6,923
Mining 846 5,963 433 373 7,615
Ice making 572 3,642 485 387 4,514
Transportation 57 1,108 124 1,770 3,002
Total 197,804 610,106 99,352 104,789 815,093
In whatever sector they work, migrant workers are placed in lower positions in
comparison to  ai workers. A multi-layered hierarchy of labor has evolved in
which migrants work as general laborers and  ai workers act as their supervisors
or foremen. Migrant workers are also assigned to the more di cult and less well-
paid jobs. Among the migrants themselves, those who are registered have relatively
better positions than those that are unregistered.  e same hierarchy is re ected in
salaries. Unregistered workers receive almost 50 percent lower than migrants who
have registered and obtained work permits (see table 4).21 In turn, those with work
permits consistently report making less than  ai workers, who typically receive at
Table 4:
Migrants by
and Economic
Sector in
(Ministry of
21 S. Chantavanich, et al. (2006). Report to the World Bank on Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong
Subregion. Bangkok: Asian Research Center for Migration, Chulalongkorn University.
39Unskilled Migrant Labor Feeds Industrialization
least the minimum wage of 133–165 Baht per day ($3.60–4.30), despite the fact that,
according to the law, employers with more than 10 employees should not di erentiate
between registered migrants and  ai laborers. Migrants are also at a disadvantage
with regards to bene ts: they typically do not receive paid sick days, coverage of health
care costs or compensation for work place injuries. Withholding or non-payment of
wages of migrants is commonly reported in all labor sectors.
Sector Registered migrant
Unregistered migrant
Agriculture 3,000–4,000 1,500–3,000
Domestic work 2,000–4,000 1,000–3,000
Construction 4,500–6,000 3,000–3,300
Fisheries 3,000–4,500 2,400–4,000
Fish processing 3,000 500–2,400
General labor 3,000 600–3,000
Factory 3,000–5,000 1,000–3,000
Entertainment – 3,000–10,000
e wage structure is further de ned by sector and by gender. In general, migrants
in agriculture and domestic service earn the lowest wages, as these occupations
are not currently covered by regulated labor standards, including the minimum
wage and other bene ts. When females are found to be employed alongside males
(such as in agriculture, construction or factory work), they consistently report
receiving less pay than males. In addition, many women are only hired on a casual
basis or for piecework, as needed.
ese structural dynamics play out di erently in di erent economic sectors
depending on the speci c characteristics of each sector. To provide a glimpse of the
variety of work conditions migrants experience in  ailand, the six sectors identi ed
above for the signi cant presence of migrant labor, namely agriculture, domestic
work, construction,  shing industry, textile and garment industry, and entertainment
industry, will be brie y described below.
e dominant occupation in  ailand has been and still is farming, with export-driven
agriculture representing the third main income earner for the country. However,
since the early 1990s—with a brief interruption during the  nancial crisis in 1997—
there has been a decrease in the numbers of  ai workers employed in this sector.
e percentage of  ai workers in the agricultural sector has declined from 72.5
percent in 1980 to 46 percent in 2000 and 42.6 percent in 2005 with many leaving
the agricultural sector for higher-wage sectors in urban areas or abroad. As a parallel
trend, the number of migrants has rapidly increased. In 1996, 78,800 migrants
registered in the agricultural sector, while in 2004 the number reached 180,000, an
increase of more than 100 percent.  ese gures are again only indicative of a much
larger phenomenon, with actual numbers of migrants working in agriculture being
Table 5:
Salary of
Migrants in
According to
22 Ibid.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region40
considerably higher: many employers do not register their seasonal and temporary
workers because of cost and time constraints, and large farms register only a portion
of their migrant workers to avoid registration costs and as a way to show their
adherence to the law in case there are inspections.23
ais typically work on their own farms, while migrants work as employees for
landowners. Migrants also concentrate in certain types of farming and livestock
raising considered particularly unattractive, such as pig-raising. Larger farms are
the most likely to hire migrants on a more permanent basis, particularly those with
year-round (rubber) and permanent crops (fruit), and to a lesser extent farms with
livestock or rice production.24 ose working on smaller farms tend to be hired on
a temporary basis and usually face poorer working conditions.  e daily wage for
farm workers is approximately 60–80 baht ($1.40–2.10) per day, and accommodation
is often provided. Migrants usually live on the farms with other migrants far from
other migrant communities, thus becoming dependent on their employer for
basic commodities and access to social and medical services. Due to this isolation,
together with poor pay and strenuous labor demands, many migrants see jobs
in agriculture as their  rst step in the migration process, with expectations of
obtaining higher-paying jobs further into the interior of the country at a later time.25
Domestic Work
Industrialization and changing gender roles in  ailand, as in many other countries
in the world, have led to more women being employed in full-time jobs outside
their home, and a related demand for domestic workers, especially in cities. While
initially internal migrants met this demand, their eventual preference for better
opportunities opening up in the manufacturing and service industries created
a shortage of labor in this sector and thus a niche for intra-regional migrants. In
ailand, there are estimates that 40 percent of all housemaids are migrant workers,
with  ai housemaids numbering around 250,000 in 2001. Migrant domestic
workers are predominantly female, with a small proportion of males employed as
security guards, drivers and cooks.
Since domestic work does not fall under  ai labor law, it is generally characterized
by limited social protection, long hours, restrictive live-in conditions and low wages.
ese features are especially problematic for migrant workers, whose irregular status
exacerbates their vulnerability. An in-depth study of Burmese domestic workers
conducted by Mahidol University in 2004 with Foundation support found that
over one-half received below the minimum wage even though they had valid work
permits. Eighty percent reported working more than 12 hours a day and 73 percent
worked overtime without pay or compensation.
23 J.W. Huguet & S. Punpuing. (2005). International Migration in Thailand. Bangkok: International
Organization for Migration.
24 J. Bryant. (2005). “Migrant Labour in Thai Agriculture: Evidence from 2003 Agricultural Census.”
Unpublished paper presented at the World Bank Workshop, Bangkok, March 24, 2006.
25 A. Beesey. (2004). Thailand: Improving the Management of Foreign Workers. Bangkok: Asian Research
Center for Migration, Institute for Population and Social Research and Thailand Development Research
Institute Foundation.
41Unskilled Migrant Labor Feeds Industrialization
e majority of migrant domestic workers are expected to care for children, the
elderly or the sick, often on a 24-hour call basis. According to the Mahidol study,
nearly one-third of the migrant domestic workers worked extra hours in their
employer’s business, or were expected to perform tasks outside of the household
according to the employers’ demands.
Domestic workers typically receive room and board, though only 30 percent of
those interviewed had their own private rooms. Living in closed-in environments,
with few if no days o or vacation, often makes migrant domestic workers dependent
on their employers for such basic needs as making a phone call or accessing
health, education and information services.  e isolated conditions further expose
migrant domestic workers to abuses, with verbal, physical and sexual violence
occurring all too frequently.
Fisheries and Fish Processing
Up until 1989, the workforce in marine  sheries in ailand was composed of
internal  ai migrants from the poorest Northeast region. During the 1990s  ais
started to leave this sector because better opportunities were opening up due to an
economic boom.  e Typhoon Gay disaster in which more than 500 boats were sunk
and at least 540  shermen killed was another contributing factor, as was the spread of
AIDS and its disproportionate impact on the people of the Northeast. Today, beyond
the  ais working in specialized positions, the majority of the workers are from
Myanmar and Cambodia and to a much lesser extent from Laos. A  rst recognition
of the dramatic shift from internal to intra-regional migrant labor came in 1997 when
the registration allowed a ratio of one  ai to nine foreign migrant workers in marine
Photo 6:
Fishermen in
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region42
In the  shing industry, male and female jobs are distinctly separated. Male migrants
are employed in marine  sheries.  ey serve as crews in three sizes of boats: small
boats commonly owned by the captain that go out daily or spend three to  ve days at
sea; medium-sized boats with a crew of 12 to 50 men that  sh in foreign waters for long
periods and dock for periods of 15 to 20 days; and large vessels with cold storage units
that go out at sea for two to  ve years with limited opportunities for the crew to go
ashore (“mother ships” come to take the catch to port as needed). Work entails heavy
and continuous work with little rest. More often than not, migrant crew members are
remunerated based on a percentage of the boat’s catch after expenses and according
to their individual productivity as assessed by the  ai captain or foreman. Average
wages for  shermen are about 3,000 baht ($80) a month.
Migrant women are employed in the seafood processing industry, mostly in processing
plants concentrated in the provinces of Samut Sakorn and Samut Prakarn or at
ports. While  ai workers act as clerks or foremen, migrants do the most hard and
tedious work, such as peeling shrimp and drying squid. Factories have dormitories
for workers to stay in, or are located in isolated areas with migrants residing in special
quarters close-by, thus curbing migrants’ freedom of movement and subjecting
them to strict control by employers and foremen. Migrants work on a temporary,
as-needed basis, dependent on the volume of the catch.  is volume-based system
is open to manipulation by the employer and is subject to frequent  uctuations of
the market. Permanent jobs provide salaries ranging from 50–200 baht ($1.30–5.25)
per day, and are the most highly coveted.26 Most women working in seafood
processing are between the ages of 15 and 25. Children can also be found helping out
in peeling of shrimp, drying of small squid, or in performing other tasks.
Construction Industry
Economic growth in  ailand has led to a boom in the construction industry and
a huge demand for construction workers that is primarily met through the hiring
of unskilled migrants. During the economic downturn of 1997 most migrants
remained, and their number started to grow again with the recent recovery of the
sector. Most of the migrants employed in construction are hired by labor sub-
contractors who in turn are under contract to developers or lead contractors.  ese
arrangements often make it di cult to know who is accountable for labor standards,
salary decisions or workplace injuries or abuses.
Migrant construction workers typically work at least a 54-hour week, with only one
day o or sometimes only two days o a month. Employers pay di erent amounts
at the same worksite according to the sex, ethnicity, age and registered status
of the worker. In  ailand, as is common in many other countries in Southeast
Asia, women are also employed in construction.  ey earn consistently less than
their male counterparts, however, even when undertaking work identical to men:
according to a recent consultancy report for the World Bank, registered male migrants
received daily wages of 150–200 baht ($3.90–5.25) and registered female migrants
110–150 baht ($2.90–3.90).27 When children are employed, they earn less than adults.
26 S. Chantavanich, et al. (2006). Report to World Bank on Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong
Subregion. Bangkok: Asian Research Center for Migration, Chulalongkorn University.
27 Ibid.
43Unskilled Migrant Labor Feeds Industrialization
Garment and Textile Factories
By the mid–1990s (and escalating with the 1997 economic crisis),  ai garment and
textile manufacturing plants began to relocate to outlying regions of the country
where they could access cheaper local and migrant labor in order to remain
competitive in export markets. Many factories have been permanently relocated to
border areas where there is a steady and cheap in ux of irregular migrants, with
workers either commuting daily over the border or residing in the factory compound.
For  ais, unless born there, these localities are not attractive as they have poor
infrastructure and services.
Factory size often determines the extent of oversight and inspection as well as the
accountability of employers. Smaller factories tend to maintain lower labor standards.
ese poor standards typically equate to little or no ventilation, poor lighting, dusty
and polluted environments and generally dismal conditions.28 Workers in smaller
factories are often paid on a piece-work basis.  ose working for larger factories
are more likely to be salaried, though wages remain very low, ranging from 40–80 baht
per day ($1.05–2.10).  e low daily pay leaves migrant workers eager to work extra
hours, which are paid at 5–10 baht ($0.13–0.26) per hour.  e vast majority of factory
workers are young migrant females who are seen as more compliant and less likely
to protest against poor conditions or long hours.29 Factories are often self-enclosed
compounds with crowded dormitories, limiting the movements of migrant workers
and exposing them to unsanitary conditions.
Entertainment Industry
Over the last decades, increases in disposable income, mobility and tourism in
ailand has grown sharply, leading to an expansion of the entertainment industry
and it has become an important source of income for the country. In a related
parallel trend, a growing number of unskilled migrants have found work in this highly
diversi ed industry with a wide-range of low-skilled jobs—such as massage and
waitressing, as well as direct and indirect sex work—on o er.
Prostitution is the aspect of the entertainment industry that has received the most
attention in relation to migration and tra cking. Although formally illegal in  ailand,
prostitution occurs in many forms and places, catering to a large domestic as well
as international demand. Traditionally dominated by women and girls from the
poorer North and Northeast regions, the sex industry now also increasingly employs
migrants as sex workers from Burma and to a lesser extent from Laos, Cambodia and
China, some of whom have been tra cked or lured with false promises. Migrant sex
workers are often found in cross-border areas and in localities with high migrant
concentrations providing services to male migrant workers who wish to interact with
fellow nationals, but the majority cater to the  ai population.
28 Ibid.
29 A. Beesey. (2004). Thailand: Improving the Management of Foreign Workers. Bangkok: Asian Research
Center for Migration, Institute for Population and Social Research and Thailand Development Research
Institute Foundation.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region44
Similarly to the other described sectors, in prostitution, too, migrants work at the
lower end of the industry in more di cult conditions. Migrant sex workers are
street-based or located in cheaper brothels, receiving lower pay than local sex
workers and often have to deal with more abusive clients. While the earnings are
still relatively higher than in other occupations, so are the risks. Migrant sex workers
are extremely vulnerable to stigmatization, extortion, debt-bondage, and abuse.
Engaging in illegal activities also puts them at greater risk of extortion, arrest, detention
and deportation.
III. Assessing Economic Benefi ts and Costs of Migrant Labor at
By  lling unwanted jobs, accepting lower payments, and working in disadvantaged
conditions, intra-regional migrants contribute signi cantly to the economy of more
advantaged countries in the GMS.  ey do so in multiple ways: they support the
expanding secondary and tertiary sectors when the supply of internal migrant labor
is no longer su cient; they maintain the necessary level of employment in sectors
and jobs no longer attractive to the local population; and they compensate for a
diminishing work force in agricultural areas a ected by internal out-migration. With
their low-wage labor they further enhance the competitiveness of industrializing
countries in regional and global markets by helping produce or process goods for
export as well as subsidizing domestic consumption by providing goods and services
at cheap prices.
In the process, emerging economies have become more dependent on migrant
workers. For  ailand, about 10 percent of the labor force of 34 million in 2000
were cross-border migrants.  is estimate is conservative since it does not include
unregistered workers. In speci c sectors, the proportion of the labor force who are
migrants is much higher. It is known for example, that in long-haul  shing migrant
workers outnumber  ai workers, although the actual ratio of migrants to non-
migrants for this sector is not known, nor are there reliable  gures for the other
sectors in which large numbers of migrants are employed.
is dependence in  ailand on migrant labor will probably not be reduced any
time soon in view of the declining labor force participation by the younger generation
of  ais because of declining population growth rates and increasing levels of
education. In addition, investment in labor-saving technology as a means to reduce
demand on unskilled labor does not appeal to most employers in the sectors where
migrants work. In construction,  ailand already has a relatively high level of
labor-saving technology, and the need remains for skills that cannot be performed
by machines, such as welding and laying cement. For smaller companies, the costs
of introducing labor-saving technologies are considered prohibitive. Similarly, in
the textile and garment industry, the investment of introducing new technology and
the related need to employ more skilled, and thus more expensive  ai workers,
is viewed by employers as not economically viable. For the agricultural sector,
employers are more willing to consider this option, but only as a longer-term
strategy when the supply of cheaper labor is close to exhaustion, which at the
45Unskilled Migrant Labor Feeds Industrialization
moment is far from being the case. In the face of a lack of strong incentives by the
government, it can be expected that employers will delay as much as possible
substituting machines for imported labor.30
e realization of the inevitability of the  ai economy’s dependence on migrant
labor and the general agreement about the positive contribution of migrants to
export-driven growth does not necessarily include consensus on how its impacts are
distributed. How the overall bene ts of migration to the country accrue to speci c
groups is still open for debate. Lack of information makes it extremely di cult to
assess how migrant labor impacts on wages and incomes of di erent groups in
society.  e only estimates available derive from two studies.  e rst, undertaken in
1995 by the  ai Development Research Institute (TDRI), concluded that a migrant
population of around 700,000 registered workers contributed 0.5 percent of GDP,
but suppressed wages of the lesser educated population by 3.5 percent.  e second
(undated) report, by the National Economic and Social Development Board taking
TDRI data into consideration, argued that the real income of the poorest 60 percent of
the population was depressed by 0.4 percent, while the real income of the richest 40
percent increased by 0.3 percent.
ese studies, although widely quoted, are outdated and not well substantiated,
and leave much to be explained.  e argument that shortages of labor could be
reduced by employing unemployed  ais and that the abundant supply of unskilled
migrant labor suppresses wages in those sectors where large numbers of migrants
are employed can certainly be made, at least for certain sectors. Still, the question
remains whether, if wages were higher,  ais would be willing to return to work
in sectors they are now shunning and do the “3Ds” jobs currently being done by
migrants. Some of the available jobs, such as in maritime  sheries and agriculture,
have such poor work conditions and bene ts that even migrants leave them as soon
as they have slightly better opportunities. An additional question is whether higher
wages would result in mobile industries, such as the textile industry, relocating to
countries with lower wage structures or to newly emerging export processing zones
in border areas where  ais are not so willing to live.
Other economic impacts of migrant labor to the destination country commonly
referred to in migration literature have not been studied. On the bene ts side, we
do not know whether migration to  ailand and other GMS countries leads to lower
costs of immigrant-produced goods; additional GDP from immigrant consumption;
or to business growth through immigrant entrepreneurship. Nor are we in a position
to appreciate possible economic costs such as legal and administrative costs for
managing migration  ows and social expenditures, beyond speculating that those
cannot be too high considering that so little e ort has been made to date to regulate
migration and that irregular migrants have very limited access to services.
30 Ibid.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region46
Even less is known on the social impacts of migration, both negative and positive.  e
public discourse emphasizes negative social impacts in terms of spreading disease and
crime, but data to substantiate these claims are often lacking. At the same time, little
is reported about the positive social impacts of migration, such as the broadening of
local perspectives and the potential bridge function of migrants in creating economic
and cultural ties among countries. As the following chapter will show, this biased view
of migration in the absence of more substantial and balanced evidence also a ects
political and public willingness to integrate migrants into society.
Living Abroad in Vulnerable Conditions
I. In Dire Need of Legal Protection
e growing volume of irregular and unskilled labor migrants in the GMS has
signi cant social implications. Not only, as seen in the previous chapter, has it
contributed to a segmentation of the labor market, but it has also created an
unprotected and often discriminated-against underclass in destination countries,
which are willing to utilize the labor of migrants but are not prepared to provide
them with legal and social protection.
In  ailand, as elsewhere in the GMS, the law does not protect irregular migrants
and only partially applies to registered migrants, leaving them unable to seek legal
assistance or appeal to the law to right the abuses and exploitation they encounter.
Irregular migrants have few if any channels to seek redress when they su er abuse, and
do not dare to protest against not being paid or not being paid in full, or not receiving
wages on time, or for physical and sexual abuse. Even when “registered”, migrants
are prevented from accessing the legal system by language and cultural di erences,
limited knowledge of national laws, and high costs.  e lack of mechanisms to inform
migrants of their rights is an additional barrier. In the absence of a clear migration policy
in receiving countries, migrants cannot con dently approach the judicial system for
protection or prosecution against violations. When they do encounter representatives
of the law, it is often in the negative sense of having to confront extortion, arrest or
deportation, and sometimes gross physical and sexual abuse.
Migrants are highly vulnerable to corrupt practices by front-line agencies and
personnel. Migrants’ irregularity is interconnected and depends upon an informal,
and unlawful, “protection” system in which corruption is embedded at all levels. It
is well known that immigration and other government o cials take bribes from
employers to overlook non-compliance with labor regulations and standards, while
also extorting money from migrants in exchange for allowing them illegal entrance
and continued residence in the country.  rough illicit payments migrants can
avoid arrest, detention and deportation and gain access to services they need. It is
not uncommon for migrants to be charged higher prices for services they cannot
otherwise access, such as having to pay the employer extra money to buy food or
clothes since they are not allowed to leave the workplace.  ey are also often charged
for services they are actually entitled to, such as being charged school fees for their
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region48
children in spite of the compulsory free education requirement for all children in
ailand, including children of migrants, or having to pay more than 30 baht for health
visits even when they are registered and covered by insurance (see also below).
Migrants’ marginal legal status not only fuels corrupt practices and arrangements, but
also deprives them of many of their labor and civic rights. In the most extreme form
of tra cking and bonded labor, migrants are de-humanized, and all too often abuses
compromise their fundamental right to life. In a case reported on while this report
was being  nalized, migrants from Myanmar on a  ai shing vessel were left adrift in
Indonesian waters with 36 starving to death and 22 hospitalized in serious condition
(see box 1). In general, for those living in factories or in isolated locations, movement
is restricted and privacy almost non-existent. In  ailand, registered migrants are not
allowed to reunite with their family or change employers.  eir freedom of movement
is also curtailed since they are not allowed to travel outside their work localities and
doing so can lead to payment of bribes or, in the worst cases, deportation. And, as
discussed in the previous chapter, work conditions rarely meet minimum standards
of employment and compensation, and migrants have no rights to organize, or to take
vacations, rest or sick leave.
Restrictions also apply to migrants’ private life. Registered women migrants are
discriminated against for being pregnant.  e government policy to test migrant
women for pregnancy and deport them if they are pregnant clearly violates Article
11 of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
to which the  ai government subscribes. Marriage and giving birth also become
problematic events for migrants since they are not o cially recognized by the  ai
government. Children whose parents are irregular migrants are not entitled to birth
and identi cation documents, thus compromising their future both in the country
from which their parents’ originated and in the country in which they were born.
Migrants’ rights to health and education are further challenged by their poor working
and living conditions and the unwillingness or incapacity of destination countries to
provide them with social protection.
The Lawyers Council of Thailand is pushing for legal action against the six owners of trawlers for the
deaths of fi shermen working on their boats. A total of 119 fi shermen left the provincial fi shing pier in
Samut Sakhon three years ago to fi sh in Indonesian waters. The fi shermen were instructed to anchor
and stop fi shing two and a half years into the operation due to the expiration of the permit. While
waiting for the permit, a total of 37 fi shermen died and their bodies were dumped in the sea. The
shermen who returned to shore said they had been left aboard the trawlers for fi ve months without
suffi cient food and medicine before being instructed to return home. The Labor Rights Promotion
Network alerted the Lawyers Council following complaints from survivors who returned home sick
and unpaid after three years of work at sea. Some of the workers were paid partial amounts via
their relatives while they were at sea. In addition to the 37 deaths, 22 workers (nine Thais and 13
Burmese) were admitted to a Samut Sakhon hospital with beriberi, a nervous system ailment often
occurring among fi shermen due to defi ciency of vitamin B1 or thiamine. Further investigations will
be carried out to determine whether the deceased workers were murdered or not.
Source: Summarized from the Bangkok Post, Monday, August 28, 2006
Box 1. The Plight of Migrant Workers in Thailand
49Living Abroad in Vulnerable Conditions
II. Struggling to Provide Social Protection to Migrants
e health of migrants is a cause of great concern in GMS countries. In  ailand,
migrant communities are often isolated and unsanitary, leaving workers exposed
to mosquitoes, industrial waste, trash and open sewers. Many migrants reside near
marshy environments, especially in border areas, where mosquitoes breed. Housing
conditions are poor, with migrants and their families typically living in overcrowded,
poorly ventilated rooms or in shacks, with limited access to clean water and little
protection from the elements. Employer-provided housing is similarly inadequate,
with close and crowded quarters facilitating the spread of contagious diseases. Since
migration is considered temporary, employers tend to avoid the expenses associated
with providing decent living conditions.
ese inadequate sanitary and living environments directly relate to the high
incidence of infectious and parasitic diseases among migrants, as also shown by the
caseload data from the largest clinic serving migrants on the  ai-Myanmar border
(see table 4). In  ailand, malaria is the main cause of death among migrants,
with a growing number of other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and
lymphatic  lariasis (commonly known as elephantiasis). Cholera and especially
tuberculosis are prevalent and on the rise among migrant workers, thus forming
a renewed threat to the  ai population. According to the 2004 registration data
tuberculosis was the disease with the highest prevalence among tested migrants, with
5,300 out of the 9,500 sick applicants found infected. Other signi cant health hazards
include diseases related to malnutrition such as beriberi; skin and eye infections;
sexual and reproductive health problems, and occupational and tra c accidents.
Photo 7:
Living Quarters
in Mahachai,
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region50
After malaria, accidents are the second main cause of death among migrants.
is is largely due to the many occupational risks migrant encounters in their 3Ds
jobs, including exposure to chemicals, heavy equipment and machinery. No safety
equipment—gloves for cloth cutters, nose covers for knitting workers, covers for steam
iron operators, and respiration protection for pesticide farm workers—are issued to
migrant workers, thus putting their health and safety at great risk. Little information
is available on the exact types and extent of workplace injuries and deaths, but initial
research supported by the Foundation indicates that accident prevalence is high,
especially in construction, the  shing industry and domestic work, with little or no
bene ts o ered by employers for health care, disability or death.
Reproductive and sexual health risks are somewhat better documented, especially
as they relate to abortion and HIV/AIDS.  e  ai Public Health Ministry has
recorded a rate of complications for abortion 2.4 times higher among migrant
workers than that of the local  ai population. Fear of unemployment and pressure
by employers move women migrants to terminate their pregnancies.  e government
policy to deport migrant women who are pregnant when applying for registration as
a way of preventing the birth of migrant children in  ailand is another contributing
factor. Since abortion is formally illegal under  ai law, except where pregnancy
threatens a mother’s life, and since migrant women do not have access to the
relatively safe abortion clinics provided by  ai NGOs with the implicit assent of the
government, they are compelled to seek out untrained abortionists and lay midwives.
It is to be expected that the high occurrence of unsafe abortions a ects maternal
mortality and morbidity of migrant women, but no details are available.  e general
assumption is that maternal and infant mortality and morbidity ratios are much
higher for migrants than for the  ai population, with  gures probably close to the
Acute Respiratory Infection 8,358
Malaria 2,995
Skin infection 1,547
Peptic ulcer 1,374
Worm infestation 1,353
Acute diarrhea 1,119
Urinary Tract Infection 698
Eye infections 628
Beriberi 436
CVS 192
Dysentery 121
Dengue fever 18
Measles 11
Scrub typhus 5
Typhoid (suspected) 3
Meningitis 2
Other 13,784
Total 32,644
Table 6:
Caseload at
the Mae Tao
Clinic in 2004
51Living Abroad in Vulnerable Conditions
dramatic MMR and IMR ratios of migrants’ home countries (refer to chapter 2, table
1), because a majority of mothers do not receive pre-natal or post-natal care and give
birth in poor hygienic and sanitary conditions with no trained attendance. Only in
an emergency will female migrants attempt to access formal health services, but this
often occurs too late.31
Governments, local NGOs and international agencies, including the Foundation, have
been particularly preoccupied with the spread of the AIDS epidemic across borders.
Contrary to popular perception, there is growing evidence that rather than bringing
the disease to the destination country, migrants become vulnerable to contracting
HIV during transit and on arrival, eventually carrying it back to their home
communities on return.  ailand as the country worst hit by the epidemic in the
GMS, with an estimated adult HIV prevalence of 1.4 percent by the end of 2005, is
a likely source of infection for migrants from countries with a lower prevalence rate.
Some of the early HIV cases detected in Laos were migrant workers returning from
ailand. In Cambodia, a growing number of infections has been reported among
returning male migrant workers, especially among those working in the  shing
industry. Migrants living abroad are in situations conducive to high risk: they have
limited knowledge of HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it, are far from the social control
usually exercised by their communities, face greater opportunities for casual and
commercial sex, and are unaccustomed to using condoms. Not only they, but their
partners, too, are clearly at risk. Raks  ai Foundation, in a detailed study on AIDS
and migrants in the  shing industry undertaken with Foundation support, reports
that in Mahachai, of the 72 percent of married migrant  shermen who never used a
condom with their spouse, 24 percent stated having unprotected extra-marital sex.
Migrant sex workers are particularly exposed to HIV/AIDS because they work at the
lower-end of the prostitution industry, where negotiating condom use is more di cult
and the government’s “100 percent condom program” rarely applies. Concerns are
now growing that at a time when  ailand has successfully reduced transmission
of HIV among  ai citizens, the prevalence of AIDS in migrant populations residing
in the country will rise if left unchecked. A recent UNDP study points out that in
Samut Sakhon, one of the provinces with the highest concentration of migrants,
there was a 4.3 percent HIV prevalence rate among pregnant migrant workers tested,
as opposed to 2.0 percent among  ai pregnant women.32
Growing awareness of the vulnerable health condition of migrant workers, coupled
with concerns that migrant settlements are becoming public health hot-spots for the
transmission of communicable diseases have led the  ai government to consider
providing services to the burgeoning migrant population, even if they are irregular.
is response is also based on the realization that most migrants will not be returning
to their countries as rapidly as initially expected, since a majority have been in  ailand
for three or more years, and 29 percent for over  ve years.33 Fearing that too direct
31 C. Maung & S. Belton. (2005). Working Our Way Back Home: Fertility and Pregnancy Loss on the Thai-
Burma Border. Mae Sot Thailand: Mae Tao Clinic.
32 United Nations Development Program (UNDP). (2004). Thailand’s Response to HIV/AIDS: Progress and
Challenges. Bangkok: UNDP
33 J.W. Huguet & S. Punpuing. (2005). International Migration in Thailand. Bangkok: International
Organization for Migration.
Labor Migration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region52
action would be construed as undermining legal migration channels and rewarding
irregular movements, the government has enlisted NGOs to initiate programs in
several provinces with a high concentration of migrants to provide family planning
services and promote disease prevention and environmental sanitation (see further
discussion in chapter 7). For registered migrants in  ailand, as explained in chapter
3, the 2004 registration drive granted them for the  rst time the right to primary and
reproductive health care and communicable disease control services, and allowed
them to enroll for a fee in the general health insurance system that guarantees services
at 30 baht ($0.80) per visit.
is initial step in providing migrant workers with some degree of social protection
has been helpful in increasing their use of health services. Still, it has limitations
in that it does not allow non-working family members to be enrolled. Moreover, all
migrants, registered or not, continue to face other barriers, such as language, insecurity
about their legal status, ignorance of available services, inability to take days o , and
experience of or fears of discrimination by health care providers. Costs are major
deterrents for migrants to use health services, even for those who are registered: these
include costs for health services and medication, transportation and travel escorts for
security and translation purposes, and costs associated with lost days of work. Since
migrants typically have little or no accumulated savings, a family member’s health
care needs often result in relentless poverty or a high burden of debt, compelling
migrants to look for cheaper options or no treatment at all.
Given the many obstacles, migrants resort to a “hierarchy of preference” in addressing
their health needs, as shown in a diagram from the Raks  ai Foundation’s study
( gure 9). For minor ailments migrants may let illnesses take their course and initiate
action only if their conditions worsen or they experience complications. Traditional
remedies familiar to the migrants may be applied or treatment sought with traditional
healers who share the same etiological model and speak the same language as the
patients. Depending on the nature of the symptoms, migrants may also try self-
medicating with modern drugs purchased without prescription from a drug store
or local shop, or obtained from their employers or from other migrants. When
Figure 9:
Barriers to
Health and
53Living Abroad in Vulnerable Conditions
symptoms reach a point of serious concern, migrants will likely approach a private,
often informal, health provider who typically lacks adequate training or equipment.
If symptoms do not abate and the condition worsens (often to the point of becoming
life-threatening), migrants will then seek out strategies and funds to overcome the
barriers to public health services.
For the most part, migrants will only go to the hospital on an emergency basis for a
severe condition left untreated or an injury. Public hospitals are required to admit
anyone in need of medical attention. However, migrants are not always aware of this,
and fears of arrest or having to pay “invisible” fees prevent them from using the services.
is is also the case for health services to which irregular migrants, irrespective of
their registration status, are fully entitled, such as vaccination of children. Statistics
show that in spite of availability of free services, access and use remain low. In the
border province of Tak, the number of children vaccinated was about one-third of the
number of registered migrant children, probably because of lack of information, and
fear of arrest, extortion or hidden fees.
Migrants’ access to health services is also a ected by restrictive factors on the
provider’s side. Health administrators at lower echelons are often not aware of the
policies formulated at the national level.  ey are not sure whether they are supposed
to treat migrants and how to charge the costs incurred. F