The order in Phuket to “crack down” on new arrivals to the island from Thailand’s westerly neighbour came only early this past week, more than three months after more serious orders for officials to take proactive action were issued in Phang Nga, the province immediately north of Phuket.
Those orders were issued by Chamroen Tipayapongtada, a former Governor of Phuket, well liked and well respected during his time on the island for his common sense approach to dealing with issues. Of note, he is much younger than the traditional age of our serving governors.
Mr Chamroen is well versed in how the migrant worker supply trade works in Phuket, and well aware that any migrant workers heading for Phuket must pass through Phang Nga first.
His orders to subordinate officials in Phang Nga included serious warnings against any employers found with illegal migrant workers AND warnings of serious action against any officials responsible for areas where any illegal migrant workers are found.
Meanwhile, for months, Phuket officials did nothing. There is no way this could be believed to be a coincidence. The crackdown in Phuket came only after a direct order from the prime minister.
Hard-working people from Myanmar have long been the backbone of Phuket’s rise over the past two decades. The government would like to talk all about investors and new construction, but no mention is given of how important these people are to businesses across Phuket, despite living in the poorest conditions on the island even while working for local municipalities doing work that many Thais simple choose not to do.
Before the COVID crisis, the reliance on Myanmar workers and their low rates of pay permeated nearly every business sector on the island. Everywhere you went you saw a Myanmar worker in your local restaurant, at your local store – and those were just the one you could see. As Phuket tries to climb out of the economic hole we have found ourselves in, it is very difficult to see that dependence fading.
According to the Phuket Employment Office there are 59,000 migrant workers on the island; 80% of those are from Myanmar. Of course officials must target sections of the community that are at more risk of bringing COVID-19 to the island, but the attitude behind the approach is appalling. These “visiting neighbours”, many of whom have lived on Phuket for years, must not be taken for granted.