Migrant workers in Thailand face unemployment and cannot afford COVID-19 tests
By Nanchanok Wongsamuth
BANGKOK, Jan 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Migrant workers in Thailand are struggling to find work and survive after coronavirus cases in the Southeast Asian nation reached record highs and employers imposed new restrictions, human rights groups said on Friday.
In Samut Sakhon, a province south of Bangkok where the current outbreak began at a seafood market late last year, local charities say many migrant workers - especially those in the seafood and service sectors - are unable to work or access government aid.
"We are concerned about what will happen if (the outbreak) cannot be controlled," said Papop Siamhan, director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which provides free legal aid to migrant workers.
Thailand is dealing with its worst coronavirus outbreak, with more than 200 new infections each day, raising the total so far to 9,841 cases, including 67 deaths.
Many people have blamed migrant workers from Myanmar - a major source of labour in the seafood industry in Samut Sakhon.
The province has about 260,000 registered migrant workers, according to government data, but activists estimate the number could be more than 400,000, including undocumented workers.
Three migrant worker charities in Samut Sakhon said they had received complaints from workers who had been asked to obtain medical certificates showing negative COVID-19 test results in order to return to their jobs.
The Thai government has ensured that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, who has visited known hotspots, or who is suspected to have been infected, can access free coronavirus testing and treatment.
But some migrant workers were deemed low risk and denied tests at government hospitals, and could not afford to get tested at private hospitals that can charge more than 4,000 baht ($133), migrant worker advocates said.
Pakpoom Sawangkhum, president of the Proud Association, which helps vulnerable communities in Samut Sakhon, said some migrants are reluctant to get tested because of their illegal status, and those who tested positive refused treatment in an effort to remain in jobs.
The U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) said all employers should meet their legal obligation to uphold equal treatment for all employees.
"A migrant worker on minimum wage in Samut Sakhon contributing 100% of their salary for testing would have to work for an estimated nine days to cover the costs of a single COVID-19 test," Geraldine Ansart, IOM's chief of mission in Thailand, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"These prohibitive costs serve as a significant barrier to ensuring migrants are included in efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic," she said.
Suchat Pornchaiwiseskul, director-general of the Department of Employment, said he was unaware of any employers asking migrant workers to provide medical certificates in order to return to work, but would investigate.
One migrant worker at a factory in Samut Sakhon, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had been asked to stop working without pay after being unable to afford a COVID-19 test and obtain a negative certificate to show his employer.
"I can't find a new job, I can't travel and there are costs I need to pay for my family to survive," he said by phone from Samut Sakhon, which has been under lockdown since last month.
"Even if I'm not working, I should at least receive half of my wages. I want the same rights as other workers."
($1 = 30.0900 baht) (Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth @nanchanokw; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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