BANGKOK — Labor activists said the law that sparked the ongoing exodus of thousands of migrant workers is unlikely to improve the illegal workforce situation.

Issued urgently by the interim cabinet, the law which brought tougher penalties for those who employ illegal workers may not be a game changer if the practices of the government and law enforcement remain unchanged.

“The problem is the government system,” said Adisorn Kerdmongkhol, a coordination with the Migrant Working Group. “Now I’ve already heard some employers tell their workers to choose between two options: go back home or pay bribes.”

Read: New Migrant Law Levies Heavy Fines On Employers

The ensuing panic over the the Royal Decree affecting migrant labor, which went into effect June 23, prompted many to flee back to their homes in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

Beside their fear of arrest, some workers were pressured by employers afraid of the new harsh penalties. The new law establishes fines of 400,000 baht to 800,000 baht for each employee found without a valid work permit.

Burmese workers wait Sunday in Ranong province to depart on a bus from Thailand back to their home country.

The Labor Ministry said Monday almost 30,000 workers have left the country since the law was announced.

Adisorn believes the actual number is much higher, since the number of migrants departing from only one land crossing – the town of Mae Sot on the Myanmar border – has already seen an estimated 20,000 cross.

Thailand has 2.7 million workers from three neighboring countries; Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Only about 1.2 million of them are legally permitted to work. Most work in construction, services and agriculture, according to Foreign Workers Administration Office.

“We can’t survive without them,” said Sompong Srakaew, director of the Labour Rights Promotion Network. “With the launch of this Royal Decree, it’s like we are chasing them out of the country.”

The Royal Decree was urgently issued by the interim cabinet four days before the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Some believed it was a last-ditch effort to win Thailand an upgrade in the report.

Thailand remained on the Tier 2 Watch List in the report, in the same cohort as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

Prime Minister Prayuth chan-ocha admitted the legislation was the result of pressure from the international community. He said Thailand has to show the commitment to combat human trafficking.

Royal Decrees, which are supposed to be used in cases of unavoidable emergency, are exempt from the usual hearing process. Moreover, they require immediate implementation from draft form without any further deliberation.

Adisorn said that process was why the law was so ill-considered, because its drafters did not get input from well-rounded voices and employers were not notified.

Migrant workers are aboard a vessel Monday heading from Ranong province to Myanmar.

Absolute Band-Aid

The interim cabinet Tuesday will consider using the junta chief’s absolute power to delay for 120 days implementation of the law after it spooked migrant workers and their employers.

Adisorn said that did not convince workers to stay as there is nothing in writing until Monday, and police are still hunting for them.

Labor Minister General Sirichai Distakul said Monday the new law’s penalties were in accordance with other relevant laws such as those on human trafficking and child labor. Adisorn argued it should not be based on the same standard.

Labor rights activist Sompong said the harsher punishment is unlikely to solve the problem of illegal migrant workers if the system is still exploited by officers who make the process hardly accessible unless they receive bribe.

Adisorn said government officers often unofficially encouraged migrant workers and employers to pay to agency. That more expensive method is easier and takes shorter time.

“There are two issues needed to be changed,” Adisorn said. “First, cutting agents from the system, and secondly, the bureaucratic system must no longer be backward. It must help people.”

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