Migrant Workers in Thailand Arrested for Volunteering

Two female migrant workers from Myanmar were arrested in Thailand, fined and await deportation for volunteering their time to teach children of migrant workers at a Buddhist monastery, an action the Thailand-based Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) is calling “illegitimate and unjustified.”

The two women, who hold valid passports, visas and work permits, volunteered at the Laem Nok Monastery in southern Thailand in addition to the jobs for which they were hired. But immigration officials charged them with performing work without a permit to teach, even though the time they spend instructing the children is unpaid, according to HRDF and the Migrant Working Group (MWG). The MWG is a network of non-governmental organizations working on health, education and migrant workers’ rights that includes the Solidarity Center.

The arrests occurred despite the statement of one worker’s employer who told police the worker is lawfully employed and has been excused to take leave from her regular job painting boats because she is pregnant. The monastery also affirmed the two workers taught without pay, actions that are not illegal in Thailand, says HRDF, a Solidarity Center partner.

The women were forced to sign a document in Thai that they did not understand, in which they admitted they committed a crime, and received a fine of 5,000 Baht ($153) in lieu of imprisonment. They will be banned from re-entering to work in Thailand for two years, according to HRDF. A Myanmar national holding a tourist visa who observed the volunteers teaching was also arrested on the same charge.

“The arrests could signal a strong discouragement to other similar teaching programs in the country and could also pose a negative impact on education opportunities for migrant children as a whole,” HRDF and MWG said in a statement.

Volunteers Taught Children at Risk of Exploitation

The Laem Nok Monastery has operated a learning center for children of migrant workers for more than four years. The program began after the community recognized that migrant children, who are often left without care when their parents are working can be targets of forced labor, human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. With support from community fundraising, the monastery dedicated a learning space where children are taught the languages and cultures of Thailand as well as those of their origin countries. Local businesses provide funding for food and teaching supplies, but the teachers are unpaid volunteers, including local college students.

HRDF and MWG are calling on Thailand’s Department of Employment, Ministry of Labor to establish clear guidelines for enforcing compliance with work permits and to review the policy that restricts migrant workers from becoming paid or unpaid volunteers.

The groups also are urging police to ensure migrant workers’ legal rights are respected, including the right to legal counsel and to bail during pre-trial.

“The arrests have created undeserving traumas to the children in the classroom who had to witness their teachers being arrested and taken away in front of them,” says HRDF.