Migrants need a better deal

Public health concerns are one of the main reasons why it is important to put in place an effective system to regulate migrant workers.

Due to poor public health services in their countries, many migrant workers arrive here carrying communicable diseases that have already been brought under control in this country, among them pulmonary tuberculosis, elephantiasis and malaria.

There is only one solution to prevent a local resurgence of these diseases _ include migrant workers in the public health system.

That is easier said than done if irregular migration continues. In 2010, the government decided to end irregular influxes of migrants. Under the new system, migrant workers are required to verify their nationalities and obtain passports from their home countries to get work permits and work here legally.

A new and better system would make it easier for migrant workers to get medical help and reduce the spread of contagious diseases, right? Wrong.

Dr Charnwit Tarathep, deputy permanent secretary of the Public Health Ministry, has sounded the alarm about the new migrant labour management system and its failure to answer public health concerns.

According to him, there were 1.9 million migrant workers in the system with access to public health services in 2011. In 2012, there were only 1 million left. If this drastic decline in the migrant population was caused by their return to their home countries, it would have prompted a major outcry from employers, he said.

That did not happen. There is only one explanation _ the new system is driving away a large number of registered workers.

Since the introduction of the complex, costly and corruption-plagued nationality verification system, statistics show communicable diseases among migrant workers have increased significantly, he said. So has the pregnancy rate among female migrant workers due to a lack of family planning support. Without proper vaccinations and other medical support, their babies may catch easily preventable diseases.

His warnings must be taken seriously.

To fix the new migrant labour regulation system, the government must make it affordable, convenient and client-friendly, cutting out the middlemen to prevent abuse of power. Stop offering services for only a short time and punishing workers who miss deadlines. Instead, offer year-round services to legalise workers' status.

Also, offer more incentives for migrant workers to join the system. At present, being legal does not mean they will get the minimum wage. In addition, the law prohibits them from changing jobs. If they do, their legal status ends and they will be deported.

They are also barred from leaving their designated zones, which robs them of freedom of movement. They cannot even hold driving licences. These laws that violate migrant workers' human rights must stop.

Furthermore, the authorities must get serious with employers who confiscate migrant workers' legal documents. If they cannot hold their own papers, police extortion will continue. Employers who refuse to give legal migrant workers a minimum wage, which is against the law, must also be punished.

If the new labour management system still results in migrant workers being abused, there is no chance of persuading others to join the system. Its flaws cannot be fixed if society refuses to give up ethnic prejudice and stop viewing them as national security threats. When they choose to stay underground, we have only ourselves to blame for the problems that ensue.