Myanmar’s ban on overseas male workers worsens Thai labor shortage

The junta suspended overseas work permits in order to boost conscription.
By RFA and BenarNews Staff
2024.05.15
Myanmar’s ban on overseas male workers worsens Thai labor shortage A Myanmar migrant works in a Taiwan-owned garment factory in the northwestern Thai town of Mae Sot May 24, 2007.
Reuters/Sukree Sukplang

A Myanmar ban on young men going abroad to work, aimed at replenishing its armed forces, could trigger a labor crunch in Thailand where many Myanmar workers, who have for years helped sustain growth, are wondering how long they’ll be able to stay in their jobs, workers’ rights and industry groups said.

There are about a quarter of a million Myanmar citizens working legally in Thailand, the largest contingent of Thailand’s 3.3 million foreign workers. Most of the Myanmar workers are employed in factories, the service sector, agriculture and some 25,000 of them in the fishing industry.

Myanmar announced on May 2 the suspension of new permits for conscription-age men hoping to find jobs abroad as it seeks to enforce  conscription in the face of battlefield setbacks at the hands of allied insurgent groups fighting to end military rule.

Now about half the Myanmar workers in Thailand find themselves in legal limbo as work permits issued by their government expire with no indication Myanmar will renew them, said Roisai Wongsuban, an adviser for the Thailand-based Migrant Working Group.

“There are some 150,000 Myanmar workers ending their tenures, as per the MOUs, who have to renew necessary documents with the home government,” said Roisai, referring to memorandums of understanding on migrant workers between the neighbors.

“It is unclear whether they are subject to the ban. Some are afraid to go back home to renew their paperwork … They fear they won’t be allowed to come back.”

The founder of a charity helping Myanmar migrants in Thailand said he had no doubt young men going back to renew their overseas work permits would be pressed to join the military.

“They’re afraid to go back to Myanmar because the government won’t allow them to go abroad,” Htoo Chit of the Foundation for Education and Development told Radio Free Asia. “As soon as they’re back in Myanmar, they have to work for the military.”

Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy needs an additional half a million foreign workers and it has been looking to Myanmar as the source for most of them, said a senior official at Thailand’s Department of Employment.

 “We’re running short of a work force and those youngsters need jobs,” Somchai Morakotsriwan, the department’s director general, told RFA.

The Thai government had yet to draft a plan for how to deal with the new circumstances but Somchai said he expected there would be an impact, though the extent was not clear. Much could depend on whether young Myanmar men could get across their border, he said.

“I think there will be some impact … [We] have to look at any border checkpoints, whether or not they can come back. At the moment, we don’t have information,” he said.

The president of the National Fisheries Association of Thailand, Mongkol Sukcharoenkana, said Thailand should accept Myanmar workers no matter what their official status was.

“One way Thailand could help them is to issue work permits regardless of illegal entry or the lack of passport,” Mongkol told BenarNews, an RFA affiliate. “They’ve fled war, dodged conscription, we give them jobs, they help our business.”

As a result of Myanmar’s enforcement of its conscription law, which requires men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 to serve in the armed forces for two years, more than 100,000 people have fled abroad to avoid war, the Burmese Affairs and Conflict Study found last month.

Htoo Chit said many young Myanmar men had been slipping into Thailand to join an unknown number already working illegally.

“They hope Thailand will issue them pink cards,” he said, referring to a temporary identification card allowing foreigners to stay.

Thailand and Myanmar’s other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbors have been trying to promote dialogue in Myanmar with a five-point peace plan but Myanmar’s generals, who overthrew an elected government in a 2021 coup, have largely ignored the effort.   

Roisai said it is imperative for Thailand to revise its cooperation with a Myanmar regime whose grip on power appears to be increasingly tenuous.

“This is the big question for the government to tackle,” she said.

Edited by Mike Firn.

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