In 1975, around 1,000 Thai workers left for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; by 1982, 108,520 workers, over one third of all Thailand’s expatriate work force, had left for 11 different countries in the Middle East region. Their remittances, totaling over $450 million, amounted to the equivalent of half the foreign exchange brought into Thailand by its foreign visitors and exceeded revenues from the country’s main commodity exports except rice and tapioca. Many of the Thais employed in the region are skilled workers, mechanics, engineers and drivers, and their absence is blamed for shortages of skilled labor in Thailand’s domestic labor market. The majority are unskilled manual laborers drawn by the lure of wages often five times higher than Thailand’s.
In the last decade, rural impoverishment in Thailand has caused a migration to Bangkok that has doubled the city’s population to over 6 million. Migrants to Bangkok have come traditionally from the poorer northeastern and southern provinces of Thailand. With declining domestic job opportunities, it is from these same areas that many of those now working in the Middle East have come.
Although the Thai government now has an official policy of promoting Thai labor for export, the journey from the remoter regions of Thailand to construction sites in distant countries is fraught with physical hardship, mental stress and much uncertainty. Workers often lack language and literacy skills and are invariably reliant on Bangkok’s employment agencies to place them in jobs overseas and to deal with the paperwork necessary to secure work permits, visas and passports. Arranging a preliminary interview with an agency usually means a long and arduous bus journey to Bangkok—a bustling, demanding city 51 times bigger than any other urban center in Thailand and one which many may never have seen before. Agents can demand fees as high as 50,000 baht (approximately $2,100) for their services—around three times the country’s per capita annual income—and a percentage of the applicant’s first month’s wages. With the agencies’ integrity impossible to evaluate through a newspaper advertisement and a cursory visit, and with little hope of any legal redress should the agent prove unreliable, the venture can become an expensive risk.
When I visited Ubon Ratchathani, a town near the border with Laos, I spoke with Manoo, a married man with five children. He told me of his experiences with one Bangkok employment agency. He made an initial payment of around 30,000 baht ($1,300), most of which he had borrowed, to secure roadbuilding work in the Middle East. After hearing nothing for several months, he was told that the job’s location had been switched to Australia. He became suspicious. Another visit to Bangkok yielded blithe reassurances that all was progressing smoothly, but subsequent inquiries revealed the agency to be bogus and its personnel to have disappeared. Recently a Thai journalist was shot while investigating similar operations. The government then announced that it was setting up an office to supervise the activities of such employment agencies and to help protect workers from exploitation and abuse.
In the last two years, Thailand and the Philippines have become the third most important source of foreign labor for the Middle East region. One agent for a number of companies operating in the Middle East explained the principal attractions for employers: Thai and Filipino workers can be hired cheaply, and being linguistically and culturally dislocated they are unlikely to provoke disputes over pay and conditions. Information about insurance, job safety and job security was predictably harder to extract. Returned workers spoke of difficult and unpleasant living conditions, communication problems and frequent confusion over job requirements and assignments.
Some expatriate workers had wives and families to support. For many others, seeking employment abroad seemed to be the path to acquiring luxury consumer goods and property. Vira, a young construction worker I met in Khon Kaen, northern Thailand, returned home after two years in the Gulf to find it had become a boom town with the discovery nearby of Thailand’s first onshore oil. He intended to invest his savings in a small commercial vehicle or perhaps place a deposit on a house. He had found working abroad hard and very lonely—much of the time he had to live on the job site—and had often thought about returning home to his village and family.
Although the available statistics give no indication of the trend, a growing number of Thai women, both married and single, find work in the area as cooks, nannies, housemaids and receptionists, in response to the region’s need for an increasingly wide range of consumer and domestic services. Bangkok’s employment agencies confirm the demand for Thai female workers, one of them adding that they were considered “more fashionable than other Asians.” Ting, who had begun her working life as a maid in Bangkok, met her Filipino husband while she was working as a cook in Saudi Arabia. This experience subsequently gained her a job catering for a foreign medical team at Aranyaprathet, near Kampuchea. Before her marriage she had been predominantly housebound in an unfamiliar culture, an enforced solitary existence. Now, though, she was happy to have saved money for herself and her family.
Whatever the potential problems, the financial attractions are still considerable, and in the next few years many Thais will look for work in the Middle East. With the government taking a more direct role in their initial recruiting, the workers should be better protected against serious exploitation, although many Thais view the existing Counter-Corruption Committee with considerable skepticism. What occurs once the workers have left Thailand is a different question. Many have little or no conception of the social and cultural complexities of their intended destinations, and even less knowledge of whatever legal rights their precarious status will allow.