On 10 July 2022, the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) and MAP Foundation (MAP) jointly organised a consultation meeting in Chiang Mai to tackle the issue of improving migrant workers’ access to Social Security in Thailand. The event provided a setting for migrant workers to share experiences, interact with representatives of the Social Security Office, and directly advocate for a more migrant-friendly Social Security System. The experiences of migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted the urgent need for improvements in this area. MMN’s study, Surviving the Pandemic, found that with minimal access to Social Security many migrants in Thailand experienced extreme hardship after being made redundant during the crisis. Some returned to their countries of origin through rapidly closing borders and against public health guidance, as longstanding hurdles, both legal and practical, prevented them from accessing Social Security benefits in their time of need.
To ensure broad representation at the Chiang Mai consultation meeting, MMN and MAP encouraged migrant workers from different sectors and with a range of experiences of Thailand’s Social Security System to participate. This included those currently enrolled, those who had never before enrolled, and those who had fallen out of the Social Security System. In total, 28 migrant workers from Myanmar (11 men and 17 women) employed in construction, domestic work, and manufacturing participated in the Chiang Mai event.
Before representatives of the Social Security Office arrived, migrant participants brainstormed their experiences. Many remarked that Thai employers often act as gatekeepers to the Social Security System. For example, participants related their experiences of employers who fail to inform them of their right to join the Social Security System, while others falsely inform them that they are already enrolled, deduct monthly contributions from salaries, but never actually enrol them while pocketing the money. During the discussion, migrant participants also raised various questions that they wished to put to the representatives of the Social Security Office. One participant, who was no longer enrolled in the Social Security System, but who wished to re-enrol and make voluntary contributions had questions about their eligibility to do so under Section 39 of the Social Security Act. Others had more general questions, such as the immigration status needed to be eligible to enrol, how to claim benefits once enrolled, and how to lodge complaints.
Migrant worker participants then split into three small groups according to their Social Security status, or lack thereof. Each group discussed the particular challenges they faced and formulated recommendations to submit to the representatives of the Social Security Officer during the afternoon session.
The group of migrants currently enrolled in the system reiterated their concerns that employers rarely provide migrant workers with accurate information concerning Social Security. They also remarked that the lack of interpretation and translation services at Social Security Offices continues to be a major hurdle, a Shan migrant participant stated that:
“Some migrants do not know much Thai and cannot write well. We want the Social Security Office to provide a Shan or Burmese interpreter and someone who can help us complete all the paperwork.”
The group said that many migrants wish to individually enrol in the system or claim their old-age pension, but do not know how to do so. Lastly, they stated that ad-hoc Social Security benefits, such as the Covid-19 relief scheme known as “Raorakkun” (เรารักกัน), should be extended to migrants who contribute towards the system. A migrant worker participant explained:
“We have just been through the coronavirus pandemic. We do not get any help, whether a state relief bag or any other kind of assistance. However, when the day comes around to pay Social Security contributions, we must pay anyway. We just want to have equal rights as Thai people covered by the system.”
The group of migrants who had fallen out of the system said that their employers had not enrolled them and that when they were previously enrolled, they had to pay an intermediary to join. They said that access to information remained problematic and recommended that the Social Security Office disseminate easy-to-understand information in migrant languages. Participants also shared some of their bad experiences while enrolled in the system, such as situations where employers had changed their healthcare provider without notice. As in the previous group, the migrants who were no longer enrolled recommended reform of the current system to allow all eligible workers to re-enrol and make voluntary contributions under Section 39 of the Social Security Act, and that interpretation services be provided at Social Security Offices.
The group who had never previously enrolled in the Social Security System explained that one of the main reasons for this was that their employers had refused to enrol them unless they paid both the employer’s and employee’s contributions. They also remarked that migrant workers typically never join because they work within the informal economy as day labourers, or as domestic workers who are barred by law from joining. They recommended that the law should be reformed in this regard and that the Social Security Office improve its communication with migrant workers by having a clear list of the requisite documentation needed to enrol.
Recommendations to Representatives of the Social Security Office
Following the small group discussions, participants came together to finalise a set of recommendations to submit to representatives of the Social Security Office. The following six recommendations were agreed upon and delivered in the afternoon session by nominated migrant worker participants to Ms. Kantinan Boonying and Ms. Saranrut Phanthanasat, labour specialists from the Chiang Mai Social Security Office :
- The Social Security Office should disseminate easy-to-understand information, including in video form;
- Translation and interpreting services should be provided at Social Security Offices;
- Migrant workers who cease to be employees should be eligible to re-join the Social Security System and make voluntary contributions under Section 39 of the Social Security Act;
- The Social Security Office should increase enforcement action, under existing laws, against employers who evade their duty to enrol their employees in the Social Security System;
- Current laws limiting the eligibility to enrol in the Social Security System by types of jobs and occupations should be lifted; and
- Ad-hoc compensation and benefits schemes, such as “RaoRakGun” (เรารักกัน), should be extended to migrant workers enrolled in the Social Security System.
In delivering these recommendations, migrant participants related the challenges they faced to illustrate the need for change. Thereafter, Ms. Kantinan Boonying and Ms. Saranrut Phanthanasat, gave a presentation introducing the workings of Thailand’s Social Security System. This included details of available benefits related to sickness, disability, pensions, maternity, child allowance, and unemployment. They also explained how contributions (government, employee, and employer) are paid into the Social Security Fund and Workmen’s Compensation Fund and explained how each type of insurer benefits.
During the question-and-answer session that followed, the representatives of the Social Security Office agreed to forward the recommendation regarding the provision of interpretation services in migrant languages to the executive level. They noted that in their experience, migrant workers are often wrongly categorised as insured persons under Sections 39 and 40 of the Social Security Act. They suggested that those already enrolled in the system should regularly check their contribution status via the Social Security Office app, adding that their assessment and monitoring team check to ensure that employers are making contributions. The Social Security Representatives explained that:
“The SSO Connect app allows you to verify to see if contributions have been paid into the Social Security fund. If no regular contributions are made, we have a team to follow up on the matter. If contributions are overdue, you will be contacted. However, you can individually check anytime by: Opening the “SSO Connect” app, and entering your identity card number. It could be a card that starts with 00, a pink card, or a 601 card.”
Furthermore, the officials from the Social Security Office suggested that migrant workers should contact them if their employers have not enrolled them or if they have any other concerns. They added that this would be more effective as the Social Security Office does not have the capacity to monitor each and every employer. In response, migrant participants raised their concerns over the ability of the Social Security Office to follow-up to ensure that employers comply with their obligations to pay monthly contributions. Regarding a question from a migrant participant concerning the documentation needed to enrol in the Social Security System, the representatives of the Social Security Office confirmed that those holding expired documentation could also claim benefits without having to inform the Department of Employment.
Closing and Takeaways
The consultation closed with both migrant participants and the representatives of the Social Security Office agreeing that the event was productive and that dialogue should be ongoing to resolve some of the issues raised.