Op-ed: Migrants - A Catalyst for Thailand 4.0

Date Publish: 
Monday, December 18, 2017

18/12/2017 - Migrants can and should play a vital role in the realization of the Thailand 4.0 vision. As a major contributor to human development globally, states that are able to harness the full potential of migration stand to benefit significantly from the economic opportunities migrants present. International Migrants Day, which falls on 18 December, is an opportunity for us to appreciate their oftenoverlooked contributions and consider the increasingly important role they play in development. 

Thailand has historically benefitted from international migration as a country of origin, transit and destination. Since the economic boom of the 1990s, the country has increasingly relied on a growing migrant labour force to support key industries including agriculture, manufacturing, construction and services to drive growth. Consequently, it is now home to at least 3.7 million migrants from other ASEAN countries – more so than any other country in South-East Asia.  

Migrant workers form the backbone of many of Thailand’s export-oriented industries which help feed, supply and clothe the world. Their overall contributions to the Thai economy is undeniable. The World Bank estimates that the country’s GDP would fall by 0.75 percent without migrants in the country’s labour force. Thai workers abroad also contribute to national income through remittances. In 2016 alone, Thai migrants sent home THB 205 billion - money that supports thousands of families and contributes to the development of hundreds of communities.  

Thailand 4.0 – the country’s ambitious economic development plan to lead it from middle-income high-income status, looks to innovation, technology and creativity to drive growth.

But its push towards a knowledge-based economy does not mean that the role of migrants will become any less important. On the contrary, their contributions may become even more crucial.

There are several reasons for this. The first is demography. Like many economies in the region, Thailand faces a rapidly ageing population and already has one of the largest shares of elderly people in Asia and the Pacific. Coupled with falling fertility rates, the country’s workforce is expected to shrink by 11 per cent by 2040, which could hurt growth prospects.

Migrants will therefore play a key role in compensating for a shortage of Thai labour and will continue to do jobs that few Thais are willing to do.

The Eastern Economic Corridor, for example, a flagship initiative under Thailand 4.0, calls for large scale infrastructure projects including highways, railways, ports and airports to be built – all of which are likely to be constructed with migrant labour.

Thailand also requires technical expertise and a growing pool of skilled workers to drive innovation. Preparing the Thai workforce for the future envisioned in Thailand 4.0 will require investments in educational and vocational training in partnership with employers.

Even more is to be gained if these investments in human resource development are also extended to migrants. Emphasis placed on fostering bilateral and regional cooperation on skills development, recognition and transferability are also crucial steps to be taken. Migration should be viewed as a viable solution that can complement efforts to address any shortfall in skilled labour

In addition, many businesses currently do not have incentives to invest in productivity, as they rely on the availability of a cheap and often exploited migrant workforce to remain competitive. In the long run, unethical practices related to migrant recruitment and employment will weaken Thailand’s regional and global competitiveness, tarnish the “Made in Thailand” brand and impede the government’s modernization efforts.

As the UN Migration Agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) believes that migration has always been an overwhelmingly positive force that must be openly embraced to fully benefit from it. Migrants can play a key role in helping Thailand 4.0 become a success, if the right conditions are put in place.

Thailand 4.0’s emphasis on inclusive growth, sustainable development and decent work mean that it is in Thailand’s interest to strengthen safe and legal migration opportunities, and to include migrants in efforts to develop a more productive workforce.

Thailand stands to benefit if social protections accorded to migrants can be easily accessed in an inclusive social environment. The recently adopted ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers is a promising regional commitment that can bring forward these goals.

Effectively managed migration has the potential to support all three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. The return on this investment will be a major contribution to the success of Thailand 4.0.

Dana Graber Ladek is the Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mission in Thailand.