Lao workers can now officially return to Thailand after a pause due to COVID-19, but pre-employment approvals and steep fees may force many laborers to continue to try to enter the country illegally, according to sources in both countries.
The Thai government announced Thursday that it will reopen its borders, starting next week, to migrant workers from neighboring countries for the first time since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Cambodians will be the first Southeast Asian laborers to return, followed by those from Laos and Myanmar, Bangkok said.
Although the Lao-Thai border has been closed, many workers still move across it in hopes of finding work that pays more than they can make in Laos. Lao authorities watch the border closely, but they can’t catch all migrants, as some get help from traffickers and employers in Thailand, said an official with the Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Services.
“Thai employers sometimes call former workers on the telephone, asking them to return to Thailand,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. “But if Lao workers want to go to Thailand without the consent of those employers, they won’t be able to go.
“Middlemen are also sometimes hired to take Lao workers to Thailand. They know all the ways to get them in,” he said.
Many Lao workers now try to enter without permission because of the high costs involved in obtaining visas and paying for the two required COVID-19 tests, a Lao man working for a job recruiting company said. The 7 to 14-day quarantine periods required before they can cross the border are another deterrent, the man said.
“The fees they are charged to go to Thailand legally are very high, with the offices that find work for them charging around 30,000 baht (U.S. $900) each, so the money they can make in one month by working in Thailand is less than what they will have paid to go there,” he said.
By contrast, entering illegally with the help of middlemen costs each worker only around 7,000 to 9,000 bhat, he said.
“They are both male and female, mostly aged around 17, who are trying to find jobs,” said an official in Thailand’s Ubon Rachathani province, bordering Laos. “They are going in and out illegally, because Thailand has not officially opened its border gates yet.”
On Dec. 23, Lao authorities proposed to authorities in Thailand that the cost of two-year visa fees for Lao workers be reduced from 2,000 baht ($60) to 500 baht ($15), and that Lao workers testing negative for COVID-19 be allowed to begin work without entering quarantine.
They also urged Thai authorities to strictly patrol the two countries’ common border to deter illegal entry and prevent migrants from becoming the victims of human trafficking or violence.
Thailand Labor Minister Suchart Chomklin said that 446 workers from Cambodia will be the first batch to be allowed in for employers in Chon Buri and Ayudhya province on Feb.1.
Late last year, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with private employers to import about 400,000 workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to fix labor shortages.
”The 446 will travel to Thailand’s Sakaeo province [opposite to Cambodia’s Poi Pet] and will be quarantined at the companies’ centers at least 7 days,” Suchart told reporters Thursday.
Unvaccinated workers or those with incomplete jabs will be administered the vaccine, another official at the department of employment said, adding that the fee for quarantine, including transportation costs, is 8,500 baht ($255) for each worker.
”We are still working on the arrangement with Laos and Myanmar. When finished, we will allow [labor] imports from those countries,” Suchart said.