Migrant workers wearing face masks look on from behind barbed wire fence set up by authorities to block off a camp in an effort to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Beting Tanjung community in southern Thailand's Pattani province.
Migrant workers wearing face masks look on from behind barbed wire fence set up by authorities to block off a camp in an effort to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Beting Tanjung community in southern Thailand's Pattani province.

Packed and locked into crowded, unsanitary working and living conditions, Thailand’s migrant workers continue to become infected with Covid-19 in disproportionately large numbers, according to labor rights activists.

In the latest case from Aug. 11, migrant workers from Myanmar were found on the resort island of Phuket to have been infected with the coronavirus at fresh markets, in factories and on fishing boats.

Infection rates among the workers at markets and in their dormitories exceeded 10 percent, according to officials.

Three construction sites on the island had already been sealed off because of large-scale infections among people from Myanmar who worked there. Many of the infected migrants were reportedly asymptomatic.

Meanwhile, in Bangkok and elsewhere, numerous construction sites and factories employing migrant workers have been found in recent days and weeks to have high levels of infections.

The reason, according to health workers and labor rights activists, is the cramped and unsanitary conditions in which migrants from Myanmar and other neighboring countries are forced to work and stay.

Migrant workers, primarily from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, make up a large share of Thailand’s workforce, especially in low-paid menial jobs such as construction, agriculture, food processing, fishing and manufacturing.

They are required to work long hours on low wages and stay in overcrowded dormitories where conditions facilitate the easy spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Thousands of Covid infections have been found in migrant worker communities that are overcrowded and unhygienic, making them a prime breeding ground for the virus,” Nareerat Wiriyapong, a journalist and social commentator, noted in a recent op-ed in which she called on authorities to provide more assistance to migrant workers during the ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 in Thailand.

“As a result, many of these workers have not only lost their jobs and income but face discrimination when it comes to receiving medical treatment and other assistance.”

Senior government officials, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, have often blamed migrant workers for spreading Covid-19 in Thailand. Such blame games have served to further marginalize already disadvantaged foreign laborers.

Last December, Prayut said it was migrant workers from Myanmar who were responsible for a then outbreak of Covid-19 whose origin was traced to a seafood market near Bangkok where numerous migrant workers were employed, with many of them testing positive.

“They snuck out and came back in,” Prayut claimed, arguing that migrant workers from Myanmar crossing the border illegally had brought the virus into the country by evading strict health checks and quarantine requirements.

Although many infected migrants manage to recover with little assistance, those who need proper medical help are often unable to do so, according to rights activists who have been calling on authorities to provide more assistance to migrant workers, including mass testing and free vaccines.

“It’s a failure and naivety on the part of the state and will put everyone at risk. We should not be indifferent simply because they are not Thai,” said Koreeyor Manuchae, coordinator of the rights organization Migrant Working Group, after a planned mass testing of 30,000 migrants last month was suddenly canceled by the Ministry of Labor.

“No one will be safe as a result if one group of people is not safe,” she added.

This story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.