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Radio Free Asia

Coronavirus Forces Lao Workers to Postpone Return to Thailand as Poverty Looms

2020-08-21 -- Hundreds of thousands of Lao migrant workers who returned from Thailand after losing their jobs when their host country shut down businesses to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are now pining for the border to reopen after finding no work in their impoverished homeland, sources in Laos told RFA.

When the Southeast Asian neighbors shut down checkpoints along their shared 1,140-mile, mostly Mekong River border in March, most of the migrants flocked home -- to an economy that couldn't support them in the first place.

Laos is the ninth poorest of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in terms of GDP, with an economy mostly based on resource extraction and farming and an education system that experts say lags behind its richer neighbors.

While the official jobless rate in Laos is below one percent, analysts say the country has not created opportunities for a surplus of unskilled workers – who can make three times the wages and live more cheaply in Thailand. Business leaders in Laos estimate that there is only one position open for every 12 returned migrant jobseekers.

The World Bank's office in Laos said recently that the unavoidable drop in remittances to families at home from the idled Lao workers is projected to increase the ranks of the poor by as much as 3 percent, or 200,000 people in the country of 7 million people.

Tens of thousands of Lao workers who did not make it back before the March border closures were stranded in Thailand with no income until early May, when Laos let them come home. Since then, streams of returning migrants have crossed back into Laos, to face a two-week quarantine in makeshift quarters in the capital Vientiane.

On Aug. 20, 60 more Lao workers returned to Laos at the Nongkhai-Vientiane international border gate, after their contracts expired and they could find no new work in Thailand. A day earlier, 40 more Lao workers returned through the same border gate.

The earlier returnees can't wait to go back to Thailand after months of unemployment in Laos.

"The first reason that I am waiting for the borders to reopen is because my employer needs workers. The second reason is that I want to help my family," a Lao migrant who had previously worked in Bangkok told RFA's Lao Service.

"It would be better to return than to just stay at home. I can not find any jobs in my hometown, so I regret that I came home," she said.

The migrant, who requested anonymity to speak freely, also said that even if she were able to find a job in Laos, the country's minimum wage is too low, and in Thailand she would be able to earn three times as much.

"If I work eight hours per day in Thailand, I can earn about U.S. $14 per day. The cost of living is also cheaper in Thailand, so I can save some money to send back home–around $150-183 per month. It's so much better working in Thailand," she said.

Another migrant, who requested anonymity for legal reasons, said she also could make much more in Thailand while spending less than she would in Laos.

"It really is much better over there. A Lao employer will pay only $115 per month, but in Thailand I can earn maybe $350 per month," she said.

Health concerns

The border remains closed, but at the end of July, the Thai government began discussing a plan to allow migrant workers from three countries–Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos–to return, as many Thai industries rely heavily on migrant labor.

Thailand's Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CSSA) said the lifting of restrictions on migrants could come as soon as August 31, if the country's cabinet can come to a resolution.

"The Thai government authorities will be discussing the management of migrant workers. The topic will be up on the table when the COVID-19 national taskforce committee meets," said CSSA Spokesperson Taweesin Visanuyothin in a statement released in late July.

"There are two groups of migrant workers. One, those migrant workers with MOU work permits and visas who are waiting to enter Thailand, and two, those who do not have work permits, but are necessary to some business sectors," he said, referring to the 2002 agreement on employment cooperation that granted legal status in Thailand for migrant workers from Laos.

"These two groups of migrant workers are very important, as they will be working in some projects related to infrastructure and the food industry. It is very necessary to use this kind of workforce," he added.

Despite Laos' relative success in handling COVID-19–as of Friday the country has reported only 22 confirmed cases and zero deaths–Lao migrants will need to go through health screenings and isolation to be allowed to return to work in Thailand.

"All migrant workers, including Lao migrant workers, have to get a fit-to-travel health certificate, the employer's guarantor document, and they have to stay at the provided state quarantine [facility] for 14 days once they enter Thailand," the spokesperson said.

Migrant workers' rights

The government of Laos is working with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to address the unemployment problems.

"Starting now, the ILO and UN are working to make brief policy recommendations to the Lao government in response to the problem both in the short term and long term," Khemphone Phaokhamkeo, the ILO's officer to Laos told RFA.

"The Lao government has to review its policies for both domestic and international investment. Future investment should facilitate small and medium enterprises to a greater extent, in order to create jobs for local people," she said.

"Also, the ILO recommends that the Lao government review its minimum wage and improve the skills of Lao migrant workers for a better job opportunities in the future," she added. The ILO recommends training programs to improve and certify Lao migrants' skills.

She stressed the importance of Laos helping gain legal status for those Lao migrants working in Thailand illegally "in order to make sure that their rights will be protected and they will not be taken advantage of once they return to work in Thailand."

Savannakhet helps jobless

Laos' southern province of Savannakhet is enacting policy aimed at helping migrant workers who have returned to the province. The province's department of labor and social welfare is assisting the workers in acquiring benefits they are owed.

"At this time we will help Lao migrants who had paid into social security while working in Thailand to claim their unemployment money from Thailand's social security funds," an official of the department told RFA.

"We are also counting the numbers of migrant workers who were both legally and illegally [in Thailand] and we are requiring that they register their information, so that we can help them find jobs. We also plan to organize some training programs for them, but we have to know first what kinds of training they want to have," the official said.

The official said the department is working with the country's ministry of labor and social welfare to coordinate support programs to get the migrants back on their feet.

The Vientiane Times reported last week that the ministry is asking all provincial and provincial-level city labor departments to compile information about returning migrants from Thailand since the onset of COVID-19, as part of a national effort to assess numbers of unemployed workers and match them with available jobs.

The World Bank's office in Laos recently reported there were more than 100,000 Lao migrant workers who have returned from Thailand, with estimates from NGO sources saying the number may be as high as 200,000.

In an early assessment of the impact of the border shutdown on the economy of Laos, the World Bank estimated that remittances would fall by $125 million in 2020, amounting to about 0.7 percent of the country's GDP.

About nine percent of households rely on remittances from abroad, with the money accounting for 60 percent of their household income.

As a result, the population living in poverty will likely increase by 1.4 to 3.1 percent this year, meaning between 96,000 and 214,000 people could be newly classified as impoverished.

The Lao national chamber of commerce and industry recently reported that there are only around 16,000 jobs available in the country across all sectors, including those in special economic zones -- about one vacancy for every 12 unemployed migrants.

An ILO officer told RFA the number of workers losing their jobs in Laos itself is growing each month.

As of Friday, Thailand has reported 3,390 confirmed coronavirus cases and 58 deaths, far outweighing Laos' 22 cases and zero deaths.

A World Bank analysis of Laos issued in April gave the country credit for boosting incomes, reducing extreme poverty, and extending public services, but said its growth model based on natural resource extraction excluded many Laos and was of questionable sustainability. Education, nutrition and health remained poor, it said.

"A child born in Lao PDR today will only be half as productive as she could be if she enjoyed full health and education," said the report. It said that the average of 10.8 years a Lao student spends in school provides "the equivalent of 6.4 years of learning."

With growth falling from 6.3 percent in 2018 to 4.8 percent in 2019 as a result of floods and drought, "the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to further intensify the country's macroeconomic vulnerabilities," it said.

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Phouvong Boutsady. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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