Thailand is struggling to legalize hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. Unregulated brokers are taking advantage of the situation and overcharging by as much as 700 percent to help register them.
Like many migrants, 29-year-old San Si came to Thailand through illegal channels with the help of a broker. For a fee, the agent got him across the Myanmar-Thai border and a job in a fish canning factory in Samut Sakhon province.
Two years later, in 2011, with the risk of deportation hanging over him if caught, his employer pressured him to apply for a work permit.
The same agent who brought him from Myanmar to Thailand arranged his legalization, for a total price of 12,000 baht (roughly 300 euros). It cost San Si nearly two months' salary.
"If I compare with some of my friends, then the cost to get legalized here was quite expensive for me. Some of my friends paid only 5,000 baht," he said, adding that since getting the work permit, he has to pay three percent of his salary to the broker each month.
Brokers cash in
Low wage workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos keep many of the country's labor-intensive industries competitive - including garment manufacturers, agriculture and frozen food factories.
The Thai government has recognized some of the problems illegal migrants face, and amnesties have been launched frequently over the years to encourage as many as two million illegal migrants to register with authorities.
Officials have also extended the deadline to apply for temporary Thai passports several times. The latest, set for August 11, is likely to see the 11 one-stop processing centers flooded with enquiries.
But the process of getting legalized is complicated and expensive. An unregulated industry of brokers - like the one San Si is now indebted to - is flourishing to help workers secure visas.
The profits are often split between brokers and corrupt officials, according to local media.
"Brokers are charging 10-20,000 baht for facilitating the process," said Max Tunon, a senior program officer at the International Labor Organization. "The true cost is estimated to be around 5,000 baht."
'All about money'
The ILO is concerned that there in no regulation of these brokers and has been pressuring the Thai government to create legislation.
"Within Thai law there is the Recruitment and Jobseekers Protection Act, which does regulate agencies that send Thai workers abroad. But there is no regulation of those who are facilitating the recruitment and placement of foreign workers in Thailand," said Tunon.
Zing Mg Lwin, another migrant from Myanmar, worked for a seafood processing factory for four years before attempting to get legalized. He also paid a broker, which cost him a month's wages.
"Life in Thailand is all about money. I have to pay rent, pay my broker fees, my registration fees. In Burma my costs are much lower. But you need money for everything here," said Zing.
The legalization process is just one hurdle facing migrants, who often face exploitation at the hands of their bosses.
"The bigger problems relate to labor rights violations - non-payment of wages, accident compensation, limited freedom of mobility due to withheld wages and passports. Brokers can take advantage - charge high fees - and place workers in conditions which are exploitative," said Tunon.
Reports suggest migrants are often forced to work excessive hours in appalling working conditions.
San Si says despite having a work permit, he's often treated as a second-class citizen.
"There's discrimination between Thais and migrant workers. The Thais get social security, which we don't. They don't have to work as hard as us. If they sleep on the job, no one complains. And their wages are higher, even though they don't work as hard."
Some analysts think labor demand and widespread corruption means the government will never come close to legalizing all foreign workers.
Others predict that as the economies of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos continue to open up, more migrants could decide to go home. But the ILO's Tunon thinks that's unlikely.
"When you look at the wages on offer between Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, there's still very much a huge gap. Among the migrant worker groups that we've spoken to recently, there's not that incentive for them to return to Myanmar, for example - because they can still earn so much more in Thailand at this stage."
In the meantime, police have carried out sporadic raids to root out illegal migrants. In one case they rounded up 2,000.
Such actions are criticized by campaigners, who say resources should be shifted toward protecting the rights of migrant workers and prosecuting the people who exploit them.
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