Thailand: Free Movement of Workers Between ASEAN Countries Nears

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By Michael Mackey

March 2—Thailand is moving toward allowing more skilled and longer-term unskilled foreign workers into the country as part of its preparations for the inauguration of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a Thai cabinet minister confirmed Feb. 25. The AEC comes into effect at the end of this year and aims to create a more integrated and freer market, including freer movement of workers, among the 10 members of ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations).

There is broad skepticism, however, about exactly how ready member states and their economies are for this tighter integration.

‘A Crisis for Us'

“Things are being finalized,” Narongchai Akrasanee, adviser to the deputy prime minister on economics, told a panel discussion on the AEC at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club Feb. 25, adding that the issue was discussed in the Thai Cabinet the day before. A particular obstacle to the importation of skilled labor has been the ability of local professionals to block their entry by using licensing and the insistence that foreign workers speak the local language, Akrasanee said

Thailand has already taken steps towards liberalizing its labor market for unskilled workers, Akrasanee said.

A former construction company head, Akrasanee noted that a crackdown on Cambodian workers at the end of May last year had stalled construction work on apartment buildings throughout Bangkok.

“That was a crisis for us,” Akrasanee said, which was resolved by Thailand’s military government allowing Cambodians to register at regional centres.

“The next wave is the Vietnamese,” Akrasanee said, who are already present in Thailand’s labor force illegally.

Thailand’s national news agency NNT reported that the Thai government is ready to sign memoranda of understanding on migrant labor imports with Vietnam, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health is considering a plan to extend health services to foreign workers

‘Going to Be a While'

Other individuals and organizations take a more qualified view.

According to Suthad Setboonsarng, who serves on the board of Thai energy company Banpu, free movement of skilled labor is “going to be a while,” and mutual recognition throughout the 10-member ASEAN bloc will take some time, particularly given such substantial challenges as language, standards and the possible exploitation of the situation by organized crime

Development consultant and former executive director of the ASEAN Foundation Apichai Sunchinda, however, believes “a greater sense of common identity” throughout ASEAN will assist integration.

To contact the reporter on this story, Michael Mackey in Bangkok at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor on this story: Rick Vollmar at rvollmar@bna.com

For more information on Thai HR law and regulation, see the Thailand primer.