by Eliza Marks
Posted on December 31, 2014
Amidst the traffic jams of Bangkok, groups of migrant workers huddled on the back of trucks with t-shirts wrapped around their faces as masks, being ferried from construction site to construction site, are a frequent sight. I’ve often thought of the invisibility of these workers, and how their voices and stories could be projected.
That’s why working with the Saphan Siang (Bridge of Voices) campaign to promote a more positive image of migrant workers in Thailand is one of the most personally fulfilling parts of my job. The Saphan Siang campaign was founded on the belief that when attitudes are informed and positive, so are actions. We believe that when an environment of respect and appreciation is fostered, migrant workers feel empowered to speak up for their rights. But sometimes we need a familiar face to remind us of this.
So I was thrilled when Kong Sorawit Suboon, Thai TV star and volunteer doctor, agreed to participate in a Saphan Siang Special. Kong has a long-standing interest in social issues in Thailand, and was genuinely concerned about the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in Thailand.
With the mass exodus of over 300,000 Cambodian migrant workers in June, the trial of a prominent migrant rights activist, allegations of the use of torture in the police questioning of two Myanmar workers, and the downgrading of Thailand in the US Human Trafficking Report, migration issues have featured heavily in Thai media this year. We wanted to ensure that among all the stories about migrant workers, Saphan Siang was giving the FACTS.
Partnering with UN Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT), the Saphan Siang Special explores the need for migrant workers in Thailand and the role they play in Thailand’s economy and society – dispelling some important myths in the process.
In the Saphan Siang Special, Kong explains that while migrants are commonly blamed for taking jobs from nationals, Thailand actually has a very low unemployment rate, and needs migrant workers to fill the low-skilled labour force. Migrants working in key sectors including construction, fishing and seafood processing, agriculture, manufacturing and domestic work, make a net contribution to the Thai economy, increasing GDP by over $2 billion each year.
Kong also highlights that migrant workers are not a drain on social services such as healthcare and education. In reality, many migrants do not seek out social services because they fear discrimination and face many difficulties in accessing services, such as language barriers. Despite this, migrant workers contribute, just like national workers, to the social security fund.
While migrants are frequently scapegoated for crime in communities, their vulnerability actually makes them more susceptible to becoming victims of abuse and exploitation at the hands of authorities, employers, and recruitment agencies.
Among frequent news reports and sometimes negative public opinion, and without personal interaction with migrants on a regular basis, I can see how it’s easy to lose sight of who migrant workers really are, and why they are in Thailand.
I hope that Kong’s voice can open the eyes of ordinary Thais and encourage them to think about their perceptions of, and interactions with, migrant workers – and also inspire them to and make changes in their daily lives. As Kong says, “You can start to make a difference in your daily life. Speak up when you hear people speak negatively about migrant workers. Tell your friends to call migrant workers workers, not foreigners or aliens. Recognise that, just like us, and regardless of their status, migrant workers can never be ‘illegal’”.
Kong and I call upon the public to join the campaign: “By focusing on what we have in common, instead of our differences, Saphan Siang highlights a more accurate and positive image of migrant workers and fosters greater understanding between Thais and migrant workers.”