Migrant workers, living and working in Thailand, must be included in the response and recovery of the Covid-19 pandemic. For that to happen, ensuring equitable and inclusive access to social protection, including health care, for all migrant workers is required.
In Thailand, as in other countries worldwide, the pandemic has reassured us of the importance of social protection to mitigate the health and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, whilst simultaneously serving as a wake-up call to address the significant gaps in coverage and accessibility, especially for vulnerable groups like migrant workers.
Thailand is a regional migration hub and destination country for an estimated 3.9 million migrant workers from Cambodia, Lao's People Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Vietnam. Constituting over 10% of the total labour, their work is thought to contribute between 4.3 and 6.6% of Thailand's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The Royal Thai government has made a continued effort to expand access to comprehensive social protection coverage to many regular migrant workers.
Currently, those employed in the formal sector are able to enrol in the Social Security Fund (SSF). Regular migrant workers working in the informal sector -- in domestic work and seasonal agriculture, forestry, and livestock farming -- are entitled to basic health protection under the Migrant Health Insurance Scheme.
While these steps taken are promising, social protection for migrant workers in Thailand is still characterised by important challenges; coverage remains low and access to benefits is limited.
To this end, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in close collaboration with the government has carried out a study on social protection for migrant workers and their families in Thailand.
Among the key findings from the study, one reveals that only 39% of regular migrant workers were enrolled in the SSF and 29% purchased migrant health insurance in 2019.
Of those insured migrant workers, many still face barriers to access the benefits in practice -- with only 9% making claims to the SSF and 3% of migrant workers with migrant health insurance accessing health services at public hospitals.
There are also gender differences in claims with 63% of the SSF claims coming from women migrant workers -- mostly for sickness, maternity and child benefits.
The barriers to access benefits include lack of information by migrant workers on available schemes and their entitlements, poor enforcement and compliance including among employers, long duration of the claim process, documentation requirements, language barriers, and lack of portability arrangements of social security benefits when migrant workers return to their country of origin.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Royal Thai Government has put in place several positive measures to alleviate infection and other risks related to the health of migrant workers.
They are increasingly included in the testing and treatment for Covid-19 at no cost and more recently in the vaccination rollout regardless of nationality and legal status.
However, despite these positive steps, there are still many more migrant workers at risk of falling through the cracks.
According to IOM's recent survey conducted in July 2021 on migrant populations in construction camps, 77% of the respondents reported not being vaccinated. While the number of vaccinations increasing, the survey future shows that migrants still have some concerns about the Covid-19 vaccines, especially on the potential adverse effects.
Other concerns relate to the vaccine's interaction with other medicine, the belief that vaccination is not required to sustain good health, language barriers, and inadequate information about the vaccination process.
With the viruses still mutating, it is imperative that all migrants continue having access to Covid-19 vaccines, including reliable and updated information specifically targeting migrants through adequate channels, with tailored messaging, taking into account the languages and cultures of the communities.
Friday last week marked International Migrants Day. It is time to come together, not only to honour contributions made by migrants, including migrant workers to our society but to also reflect and reorient our approach to building a society that leaves no one behind. Enhancing access to social protection, including health care is an opportunity for migrant workers to benefit from and contribute to sustainable and resilient communities for all.
With Thailand serving as a champion country in the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, this will also position Thailand as the leader in migrant-inclusive health care systems, paving the way for the country's participation in the International Migration Review Forum scheduled in 2022.
Original article published on Bangkok post "Migrants key to pandemic rebuild", 22nd December by Géraldine Ansart.
Géraldine Ansart is the Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mission in Thailand. The article is to mark International Migration Day which falls on December 18 annually.