Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand had about 2.3 million regular and irregular migrant workers from Myanmar, accounting for over 70% of the total migrant population in the country. Migrant labour is key to Thailand’s economy, with most people employed in gruelling or hazardous jobs not found attractive by Thai citizens such as in fisheries and seafood processing in Samut Sakhon Province or construction and manufacturing on Phuket

Thailand’s private sector cuts costs by employing migrant workers for the cheapest wages possible. At the same time, migrant workers send a significant amount of their earnings back to their families in Myanmar, meaning they have few resources left to ensure their own well-being in Thailand. As a result, most migrants working in Samut Sakhon’s seafood processing industry live in crowded dorms close to their factories, while migrants employed in Phuket’s construction or tourism industry tend to live in “slum-like areas”.

These crowded living conditions with extremely basic facilities and limited access to water and sanitation make migrant workers even more vulnerable to the pandemic. Their exposure to Covid-19 and the ways in which Thailand is managing the health crisis has had profound implications for workers’ health, their livelihoods and mobility.

Those who left and those who stayed

In March 2020, in response to the first wave of Covid-19, the Government of Thailand announced the closure of its national borders. There was little information from the government about its health response and no one knew how long the borders would remain closed. This sparked a panic that resulted in 60 000 to 200 000 migrant workers rushing to the borders to go back to their homes in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The workers decided to return home to be with their families even though it meant giving up their jobs. However, a major factor in their decision to return home was the uncertainty surrounding their employment status in case shops and companies would have to shut down and lack of access to healthcare.

However, returning to Myanmar implied costs that the most vulnerable could not afford, making them unable to leave Thailand. Additionally, the political instability in Myanmar also was a factor in dissuading many from returning home.

Others decided to stay since their salary is a major source of income for their communities at home, often supporting children to attend schools and providing for elderly family members who take care of them. However, staying also had implications on migrants’ physical and mental health. In Samut Sakhon, when the second wave of Covid-19 hit in December 2020, Thai authorities decided to lock down more than 40 000 Myanmar migrant workers in their dormitories to prevent the spread of the virus. In Phuket, some migrants living on factory sites were not allowed to leave the premises and forced to work overtime. Between the cost of the rent and inability to leave their homes, people found it hard to find food to eat. While to some extent lockdowns prevented the virus to spread to other communities, cases continued to rise within migrants’ sealed environments. Domestic and workplace violence also rose, affecting women in particular.

Disaster responses for migrant workers

While migrants are usually the first to be hit by disasters, their needs are often ignored, especially those of undocumented migrant workers, as states are more concerned about their own citizens. This is true for all the previous disasters in Thailand, from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami to the 2011 floods. However, the pandemic was different because migrants infected with the virus could spread the disease to the Thai population, so the response was different as well. In Samut Sakhon, the provincial government worked closely with hospitals and health workers aided by civil society volunteers to arrange for medical testing and healthcare for migrant workers regardless of their documentation status. Similarly, in Phuket, as local authorities intensified vaccination efforts to allow the reopening of the province to tourism, migrant workers were included in mass vaccination campaigns.

Stigma and discrimination still exist. For instance, migrants were mostly treated in field hospitals while Thai nationals and wealthier migrant workers could access urban healthcare facilities. Fear of deportation also presented a major barrier for irregular migrant workers to seek medical help and state relief.

Empathetic disaster relief efforts need to become the norm not the exception

The evidence from case studies in Samut Sakhon and Phuket shed light on two main issues about migrant workers in the time of disasters. Thailand’s economy continues to rely heavily on migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented because of the costs and heavy bureaucracy involved in the migration process. Second, disaster risk reduction measures tend to overlook this migrant worker reality on the ground unless they are seen to threaten the well-being of the Thai population. Consequently, the response to the pandemic paid more attention to migrant workers, but did not necessarily challenge the status quo.

Indeed, the first stakeholders to step in and help migrant workers during this crisis were international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations (CSOs), and Thai and migrant health volunteers. The latter were pivotal in delivering health information and care to vulnerable migrants and assisting them with interpretation. NGOs and CSOs also expanded their portfolios, integrating either health, migrants or disaster risk reduction to their usual area of work. However, ensuring the protection and support of migrant workers in times of disaster requires profound system change that cannot be achieved without the involvement of policymakers.

As one key informant observed, “Local governments crossed a cultural boundary as they had to engage with migrant workers and learned more about their everyday challenges. This made them more compassionate and empathetic and perhaps they will remember this experience next time there is a crisis”. The experience of the pandemic offers some hope that disasters and disaster response will be less hard on migrants in Thailand in the future.