To further enhance advocacy efforts for the social protection of migrant workers, the Mekong Migration Network (MMN), a sub-regional network of civil society organisations, organised a series of consultation meetings across Thailand on migrant workers’ access to social security. On Sunday, 7 August 2022, the MMN Secretariat and MMN member Raks Thai Foundation jointly facilitated one such meeting in Samut Sakhon Province. Located 48 kilometres southwest of Bangkok, Samut Sakhon is home to the largest community of Myanmar migrants in Thailand. Similar to MMN’s consultations in Chiang Mai, Phang Nga, and Mae Sot, the meeting in Samut Sakhon sought to foster a space for Myanmar migrants to raise questions and discuss issues regarding access to Thailand’s Social Security Scheme, and for representatives of the local Social Security Office to directly address migrants’ concerns and disseminate up-to-date information on related policies and procedures.
Gathered in the Ban Kampra Health Centre adjacent to the Tha Chin River, 30 migrant participants, including 14 women and 16 men, commenced the meeting by introducing themselves following opening remarks from the Raks Thai Foundation and MMN Secretariat facilitators. With the province hosting one of the world’s largest seafood processing industries, around 80 percent of the participants were employed in large seafood processing factories and smaller processing sheds. The remaining participants worked as hospital translators, in other types of manufacturing facilities, or were unemployed. Of the 30 participants, 20 were enrolled in the Social Security Scheme at the time of the meeting, while 10 participants had never been enrolled or had fallen out of the system.
Drawing from their experiences of living and working in Thailand for over 10 years on average, participants shared some of their knowledge and challenges related to accessing information on the social security system and claiming benefits. Some participants expressed an awareness of their entitlement to unemployment insurance benefits, childbirth, child allowance and maternity leave benefits, and the Workmen’s Compensation Fund for work-related injuries. Many participants understood that five percent of their salaries contributes towards social security each month. When asked who is responsible for their enrolment in the scheme, all participants responded that this responsibility lies with their employers. One female migrant factory worker acknowledged the challenges of this, exclaiming:
“It depends on the factory owner whether we get social security. The owner of my factory doesn’t want to help so we have had many difficulties.”
In terms of accessing information on Thailand’s Social Security Scheme, some participants explained that they rely on social media, particularly Burmese and Thai Facebook pages and YouTube channels, to obtain information. One male factory worker shared that each year his factory owner and a Social Security Office representative co-facilitate an information session for workers. This experience, however, was not shared by the other participants, many of whom voiced a desire for similar trainings. When asked whether anyone had visited a Social Security Office, four participants raised their hands. These visits, MMN learned, are often fraught with challenges. A female participant explained:
“The problem is language. We don’t understand serious discussions [in Thai] when we are applying for social security benefits so we need to hire a translator or agent. Also, we cannot take leave from our jobs so we don’t have a choice; we need to use an agent as we cannot take leave for many days.”
Elaborating on this issue, other participants shared that hiring an agent can cost between 2,000 and 3,000 Thai baht (roughly 60 to 90 US dollars), which is exorbitant for migrants earning the legal minimum wage of 353 Thai baht (10 US dollars) per day or less.
Additional challenges came to light during small group discussions. Divided into three groups – two of which included migrants who were enrolled in the Social Security Scheme and one of which was comprised of migrants who were not enrolled – participants continued to discuss issues related to enroling in the scheme, accessing information, and claiming social security benefits or being unregistered. A wide range of challenges were raised by members of the first two groups, including the excessive amount of time needed to claim benefits, often involving multiple visits to the Social Security Office. A general lack of access to accurate information was also raised as an issue, with one participant claiming:
“There is a lack of knowledge sharing from the Social Security Office on the ground. It is difficult to get accurate information. Some migrant workers don’t know about social security.”
Members of the third group, comprised of migrants whose employers failed to enrol them, who fell out of the system when their identity documents expired, and who became unemployed, maintained that they have to pay more money to access health services relative to their enrolled counterparts, which is a significant barrier.
Following sharing from each group, participants collectively discussed and agreed upon six core challenges and one recommendation to present to Social Security Office representatives during the afternoon session. These challenges included: (1) issues acquiring necessary documents; (2) language barriers; (3) difficulties accessing accurate information; (4) a limited understanding of processes to register for and access social security benefits; (5) the need to spend large amounts of money to hire agents when employers fail to take responsibility for supporting workers with accessing the social security system; and (6) a lack of understanding of how to apply for social security benefits when workers reach 55 years of age and when they return to their country of origin. Moreover, participants agreed to advocate for equal social protection for workers in all types of jobs, including in agricultural, construction, and domestic work.
The afternoon session of the meeting was joined by two representatives of the Samut Sakhon Social Security Office: Mr. Chanwit Prikbuncha, Academic Labour Specialist, Head of the Medical Registration and Coordination Division, and Ms. Banchong Topo, Academic Labour Specialist, Head of the Compensation Fund. Following a brief report of the main challenges and recommendation by two migrant spokespersons, Mr. Chanwit Prikbuncha began his presentation by asserting:
“I think of Myanmar migrant workers as family members of Thailand and I provide them with the same services for accessing social security…For the Samut Sakhon [Social Security] Office, we think of Myanmar migrant workers as having equal rights to Thai workers.”
Mr. Chanwit continued by addressing some of issues raised by participants. He concurred that some employers fall short in supporting their workers’ enrolment in and access to the social security system due to their lack of knowledge of social security processes and interest in the welfare of their employees. He also acknowledged the problem of informal and seasonal workers being unable to register in the Social Security Scheme. Without remarking on possible solutions to these issues, Mr. Chanwit resumed his presentation by outlining some of the benefits available through the Social Security Fund and pointing to a Burmese-language pamphlet with more details.
Mr. Chanwit’s speech was followed by a brief presentation by Ms. Banchong Topo, who similarly stressed that “every worker should get the same benefits no matter whether they are Thai or a migrant worker.” Focusing on compensation for work and non-work-related injuries, Ms. Banchong highlighted some of the steps involved in filing claims and the importance of registering a spouse or another family member to receive a survivor allowance in the case of death. In an effort to convey inclusion and supportiveness, Ms. Banchong concluded by saying:
“We warmly welcome all migrant workers. Please don’t be afraid. Please come and ask questions. We do not discriminate between Myanmar and Thai workers.”
Given the opportunity to ask questions, some participants inquired about how they can register a spouse for death benefits when they lack a formal marriage agreement, which is common among Myanmar couples in Thailand. In this case, Ms. Banchong explained, migrants should instead register a child or parent with whom they share a bloodline. Other participants shared their experiences of being asked by their employer to report a workplace accident as a non-work-related injury to a hospital or Social Security Office. Both Mr. Chanwit and Ms. Banchong, without acknowledging the unequal power dynamics involved in these situations, responded by stressing the importance of speaking the truth and that doing otherwise may prevent workers from receiving compensation.
Overall, the one-day consultation meeting succeeded in creating an inviting space for migrants to share their experiences and challenges among themselves and directly with Social Security Office representatives, while also providing an opportunity for them to gain accurate information. With some of the issues raised by migrants going unaddressed, it is evident that there is a need for sustained and collective advocacy actions to further support the social protection of migrant workers in Thailand.