Nov 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of migrant workers in Thailand whose work permits are expiring have been granted permission to stay in the country for another two years, yet campaigners said the cost of the extension could fuel debt bondage and worker exploitation.
The Thai labor ministry this week said a total of about 130,000 migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who had entered the country under bilateral labor agreements and whose permits expired from this month through December 2021 would be eligible.
"This is in order to lower the spread of coronavirus, solve the labor shortage and also protect the rights of migrant workers who come to Thailand legally," the country's labor minister, Suchat Chomklin, said in a statement.
Thailand has about 2.8 million registered migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. But the United Nations estimates that 2 million more work informally across the country in sectors including fishing, construction and agriculture.
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At least 90,000 migrant workers scrambled to leave Thailand when its land borders were closed in March to stem the spread of coronavirus. The Southeast Asian nation has so far recorded 60 deaths related to COVID-19 among at least 3,850 infections.
Migrants who wish to extend their permits will have to undergo health checks and pay a fee of 1,900 baht ($63), causing concern among campaigners who said the cost could be inflated by employers and labor brokers and drive workers deeper into debt.
Across Southeast Asia, migrants must pay a variety of fees to recruiters and bosses to secure jobs abroad, trapping many in exploitative workplaces as they struggle to clear their debts.
"There will be lots of profiteering ... by brokers, by employers," said Khun Tharo, a program director at Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, a Cambodian nonprofit.
"Thailand needs migrant workers to keep its economy running — they should make the process free," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Debt bondage is one of the world's most prevalent forms of modern slavery, affecting an estimated 610,000 people in Thailand, according to the rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Reporting by Matt Blomberg, Additional Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth Editing by Kieran Guilbert.