Thailand hopes to better manage undocumented migrant labor by stepping up cooperation with its neighbors, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The moves also are aimed at reducing human rights abuses of migrant workers.
Thailand, which has for years relied on illegal migrant workers to meet labor shortfalls, plans to create a program to register migrants, and make sure they have proper documentation.
Thapabutr Jamasevi is the deputy permanent secretary at Thailand's Ministry of Labor. He says the plan is prompted by concerns about having a large mobile population living illegally in the country. He adds,
"During the last four to five years there's been a large influx of undocumented workers from neighboring countries. We don't know where they are so it may have a negative impact on our national security, social, economics and human rights. So we decided to legalize them."
Since the late 1980's, Thailand has relied on cheap labor from poor neighboring countries - primarily Cambodia, Laos and Burma, to help power its economic growth. Some enter the country legally, but hundreds of thousands work illegally.
A temporary amnesty offered by the Thai government earlier this year led to one-point-two million foreign workers - the majority from Burma - being registered.
Hugh Oldhams, who heads the International Labor Organization Regional Office for Asia and Pacific, said recently that better management of migrant labor is needed as the region's economies became more integrated.
Thailand has signed agreements with Laos, Cambodia and Burma to get some control over migrant flows. Each country is examining options for providing migrants with special documentation and rights.
But Piyasiri Wickramasekara, a migration specialist with the International Labor Organization in Geneva, says the program will fail unless governments devote enough resources to it.
In 2002, Thai police investigated the murder of dozens of Burmese - including children - in incidents linked with illegal labor and factories or plantations near the Burmese border.
Later in the year, police uncovered the charred remains of six Burmese migrant workers in the western province of Tak. Witnesses said the men had been beaten before being shot.
Thai police have also been accused of abusing Burmese immigrants, arresting them outside factories and sexually assaulting Burmese women being held for deportation.
Thailand's National Human Rights Commissioner, Pradit Charoenthaitavee, says without legal protection the abuses will continue.
Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia are hoping their joint efforts will curtail the abuse.
But workers' advocates stress that success will require effective implementation and government support to ensure migrant workers' rights are upheld to avoid further abuse.