Forced to quarantine at his factory as COVID-19 cases surge in Thailand, migrant worker Hein Thet Zaw has spent the last 10 days sleeping in a tent, trying to ward off hunger with meagre supplies of rice and boiled eggs.
“Burmese workers eat a lot of rice, but what we get here is a small meal box, which isn’t enough for us,” Hein Thet Zaw said by phone from the factory in the central province of Phetchaburi, which makes electronic components.
Thousands of migrant workers in Thailand are being isolated in tough conditions in factories and building sites, workers and rights campaigners said on Friday, as the country faces its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began.
More than 10,000 migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have tested positive for the coronavirus since cases surged in April, according to government data, prompting authorities to confine them to their workplaces or dormitories to stem the virus’s spread.
But rights groups said government-led efforts to contain COVID-19 among migrant workers were violating their rights and putting them at increased risk of infection.
“Enforcing an abusive and discriminatory policy, Thai authorities put migrant workers affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in a ghetto, where infection spreads like wildfire in squalid conditions,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand.
Late on Thursday, hundreds of quarantined migrants protested at the Cal-Comp Electronics plant where Hein Thet Zaw works following a power cut, which he said had worsened the cramped conditions.
“Since the place is overcrowded, we’re living in a boiler without a fan,” the 28-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, saying he had not been told his COVID-19 test result.
“Without electricity, we can’t even have instant noodles when we feel hungry.”
Two other Burmese workers at the factory described similar conditions.
Phetcharerk Tansawad, head of Phetchaburi’s public health office, said about 1,500 workers were being kept in quarantine at the factory’s field hospital. Some had tested positive and others were at risk of infection, he said.
Cal-Comp said it had continuously provided adequate food and daily supplies for the quarantined workers, and had asked authorities to provide a mobile generator.
“The company is willing to continue to pay wages to all employees during the suspension period and provide them food, water and necessary medical cares during their quarantine or self-quarantine period,” said company spokeswoman Jenny Chou.
Cal-Comp, which supplies tech companies such as HP Inc, declined to say how many employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, but the Labour Ministry said more than 2,300 workers at the factory had been infected.
There are between four million and five million migrant workers in Thailand, many working in construction, manufacturing and seafood industries, according to the UN International Organization for Migration.
The Thai Government has recently stepped up detentions of undocumented migrant workers as it grapples with a deadly third wave in coronavirus cases, with the Labour Ministry warning that officials who do not take action will face punishment.
Phairoj Chotikasathien, director-general of the Department of Employment, said migrant workers were being closely monitored because of the increased risk that they had travelled from abroad while infected.
Health authorities last week detected the South-East Asian nation’s first 36 domestically transmitted cases of coronavirus variant B.1.617.2, which was first identified in India, in the living quarters of construction workers in Bangkok.
“We want to show society that we are taking action,” Phairoj said, adding that the government was testing workers in 841 construction camps around Bangkok, where 129,542 workers live, about 59 per cent of them migrant labourers.
Workers’ rights advocates, however, criticised the government’s approach.
“Labour authorities are arresting workers instead of testing them, and we are concerned this will lead to workers hiding,” said Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator at the Migrant Working Group, a network of non-governmental organisations.
“[Migrant workers] will be afraid to get treated for fear of being deported, and the outbreak will be out of control.”
In the southern province of Songkhla, canned tuna processing company Siam International Food closed down last Monday after saying 65 Thai and Burmese workers had tested positive.
About 1,500 workers at the factory have been confined to their dormitories and were asked to go back to work on Wednesday regardless of whether or not they had been tested, said a person familiar with the issue, who asked not to be identified.
The company declined to comment.
Adisorn said the conditions faced by employees at factories including Cal-Comp and Siam International Food showed “the government is not prepared in terms of managing the quarantine of migrant workers”.
“This shouldn’t be happening after the third wave.”