Foreign Labor in the Thai Agricultural Sector

Foreign Labor in the Thai Agricultural Sector

Published: 2020.10.19
Accepted: 2020.10.18
Thailand Development Reasearch Institute (TDRI), Bangkok, Thailand


Exploitation in Thai agricultural sector employment is severe. Workers face poor working conditions as well as receiving a daily wage lower than the minimum wage. Labor protection does not apply well because the majority of workers in the Thai agricultural sector are illegal immigrant workers. This paper aims to illustrate the scale of the problem, states the root cause, and provides recommendations to protect foreign labor rights. Background information regarding migrant employment, including foreign labor employment statistical data, the history of foreign migration to Thailand, foreign workers’ characteristics, and the Thai migration law are discussed to illustrate the scale of the problem and to state the root cause. The paper points out that there is a high degree of dependency on illegal immigrant workers in the agricultural sector because the employment of illegal workers in the Thai agricultural sector has not been strictly enforced. Employers typically do not require legal documents, and a location in a rural area adds on lower risk of getting arrested. The migration process and migration law are the main barriers that prevent legal migration since it imposes high cost of legalization. These findings suggest that the legal migration process needs to be revised and law enforcement must be taken seriously. Engagement of social security and improvement of its accessibility toward foreign workers are recommended to be used as a tool to protect their rights.

Keywords: Foreign labor policy, agricultural sector, immigrant workers, migration law


The agricultural sector of Thailand was a major contributor to the country's economic growth prior to the pre-industrialization period. However, during the economic boom in the 1980s, the rapid growth in the manufacturing sector has restructured the Thai economy by leaving the agricultural sector as a less significant contributor.  This shifted Thai workers away from the agricultural sector toward non-agricultural sectors and brought a labor shortage in the agricultural sector. Agricultural sector during 1980s through 2000s heavily relied on traditional farming which require high portion of physical labor as a factor of production. Labor for crop and plant farming are seasonally demanded, highly demanded during seeding and harvesting season, which fits well with immigrant workers high mobility characteristic. Immigrant workers become an important source of hired workers in the Thai agricultural sector. Additionally, millions of foreign laborers play a significant role in filling labor demand in Thailand which was required in the labor-intensive industry since the rapid economic growth in the 1980s. Foreign workers have contributed to Thailand economically and socially.

This study provides the history of migration, situation of migrant employment, social impact of immigrant workers, legal framework, and other related issues regarding foreign laborers in the agricultural sector. The scope of the agricultural sector in this paper includes only farming and fishery industry. Most foreign labors work as physical labor in any sector and in any size of business including informal employment. For Thai agricultural sector, foreign workers can be employed to do any task regarding crop, plant, and rubber farming, livestock, fishery, and its basic processing. Forestry industry is avoided because the Thai law restricts most forestry occupations and related activities from foreign laborers. The forestry industry is also not the main component of migrants' occupation in Thailand. The term used in this paper will also be based on the terminology used in the Thai law. Migrant workers can be defined as aliens or foreigners who enter the Kingdom of Thailand to work. Therefore, alien workers, immigrant workers, and foreign workers are used interchangeably.


Thailand has become a migrant destination for neighboring countries during the mid-1980s when there was a spike in development which marked the beginning of the country’s economic boom. The rapid growth is mostly contributed to the manufacturing industry which clusters around Bangkok, and its vicinity. Almost a million immigrant workers came from the neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia, moved to Bangkok, and its vicinity (Chalamwong, 2004). The economic boom creates millions of open positions with high competition in the industrial and services labor market driving continual wage growth (Figure 1). This widens the wage gap between the non-agricultural sector and agricultural sector; industrial and services jobs earn almost 50 % higher than agricultural jobs (Poapongsakorn, Ruhs, & Tangjitwisuth, 1998). Wage differences create a labor shortage in the agricultural sector.

After the 1980s, Thailand's economic boom has absorbed a massive amount of labor demand in addition to foreign migration. Immigrant workers have brought a positive impact on the Thai economy. Employment of the manufacturing industry heavily relies on labor-intensive work which has alien workers as its main component. Especially foreign direct investment company, most of them are manufacturing companies which rely on physical labor. Cheap cost of labor attracts them to choose Thailand as their production base. The study of "Economic Contribution of Migrant Workers to Thailand" has estimated that immigrant workers contributed to around 0.055 % of real national income in 2005 and 0.023 % on average (Pholphirul & Rukumnuyakit, 2008).

A positive signal from economics variables such as rising wages and low unemployment rate continually proceed until the economic crisis strike in the mid-1990s. Crisis created a huge shock to employment. Many companies had to close down and layoff their employees, especially in the export industry and other related companies (Paitoonpong & Chalamwong, 2013). Those surviving companies were forced to cut their costs and had to restructure their company scale which also leads to mass layoffs. On the other hand, labor-intensive industries were able to expand their competitiveness during that high unemployment rate situation. Suppressed wages proves to be one of the advantages for the manufacturing industry.

In 2010, the Department of Employment statistic recorded 82.3 % of illegal migrants (Table 1). Most of these undocumented migrants work in the construction and manufacturing sector such as agricultural production and food processing.


Migrants’ decision is based on their expected cost and benefit calculation. The number of incentives based on differences between net benefits gained from moving to a new area also attract migration. The distance of migration as a cost of movement is a simple variable that explains this idea; migration distance has a positive relation with benefit gain from migration. Other several factors influenced migration as well.  Physical factors (food security, infrastructure, natural disaster, war, etc.) and non-physical factors (social, politics, quality of life, and prosperity) can all be influential factors.

Industrialization and foreign investments in Bangkok, and its vicinity demand vast labor while offering relatively high wages in comparison to neighboring countries. Thailand’s minimum wage is almost twice that of Vietnam and Cambodia, greater than twice that of Lao PDR, and up to thrice that of Myanmar. Increase payment offers and better access to the public facility provided a huge incentive for low-skill workers to migrate to Thailand. Additionally, opening jobs position brought not only a huge amount of foreign migration from abroad but it also caused urbanization within the country. Urbanization created labor shortage in rural areas which mainly contributed to agricultural sector. Agricultural employment absorbed immigrant workers’ supply since the early waves of migration.

Almost all the migration either comes through a natural channel[1] or with the incorrect type of border pass which is illegal. Illegal migrants are unable to apply for jobs that require identity verification or work permit. They have limited job options because of their skills and legal status. Even though agricultural jobs provide lower wages than other sectors, these workers face lower risk of getting arrested and shorten transporting distance, as their workplace are in rural areas. Agricultural job tasks and environments are also familiar with those of their countries of origin. All these factors led most illegal migrants to choose the agricultural sector as their job.

Social impact

Since 2000, the Thai government has tried to find ways to manage many illegal migrants from neighboring countries. Illegal labor migration is highlighted as contributions to social and political problems (Pholphirul & Rukumnuyakit, 2008). These illegal labor migrants often migrate in the form of cross-border migration which is often pictured as a threat to national security and can cause many social problems in the country of destination. Problems arise from the causes of migration itself such as unequal socioeconomic development levels among countries and disequilibrium of demand and supply in the labor market.

Immigrant workers improve economic efficiency in the Thai labor market, even though they distort the Thai wage rate and compete with Thai workers (Paitoonpong & Chalamwong, 2013). They fill the gap in low skill and labor-intensive labor market. The business sector also employs illegal immigrant workers because it is difficult to find Thai workers for certain jobs in a specific location especially in the fishery sector and rubber plantation in rural areas (Chalamwong & Paitoonpong, 2019). Immigrant workers are employed with significantly lower wage than the Thai wage rate, and the wage is even lower when hiring an illegal worker. Employers become better-off from the cheaper cost of labor and the positive characteristic of immigrant workers, as immigrant workers are hard-working, dedicated, responsible, and loyal than local workers (TDRI, 2016). Their turnover rate is also extremely low; half of the immigrant workers' responses to survey say that they have never previously changed their job (Chalamwong, Prugsamatz, & Hongprayoon, 2010).  Eighty-five percent of responses also never collectively bargain for benefits. As most of them fill in vacant positions such as 3Ds jobs, low skilled jobs, and those labor-intensive jobs in the agricultural and fishery industry. The presence of foreign workers further pushes Thai workers to acquire high-skilled jobs.

Immigration from less developing countries cause huge economic impact throughout both rural and urban areas. Foreign workers tend to replace low skill jobs and create intense competition in the labor market which further drive down wages (Pholphirul & Rukumnuyakit, 2008). Thai rural labor must migrate from rural to urban areas to seek for better paying jobs. Because most of the immigrant workers work in a labor-intensive industry, the presence of foreign labor will benefit firms and employers by saving their labor costs. 

Although immigrant workers contribute positively to the Thai economy, migration from less developing countries often comes with social problems, especially with illegal migration (Paitoonpong & Chalamwong, 2013). National security, health security, and other social problems such as crime, disease (HIV/AIDS), or stateless babies become a social cost that needs to be taken care of. An increase in the density of the population also causes extra burden for the public service and social infrastructure, such as education and health care services which are scarce in remote areas.


In 2010, 82.3% of registered immigrant workers are illegal (Table 1) (Foreign Workers Administration Office, Department of Employment, 2010). Ninety-eight percent of them are from Cambodia, Lao, and Myanmar (Table 2). Most illegal migrants seek for low skill jobs. Most of them migrate through the natural land-link channels from neighboring countries. Thai minimum wage is far much more attractive than that of their countries of origin. The quality of life and basic infrastructure such as irrigation, transportation, telecommunications, and food security are also better in Thailand. Most immigrant workers’ objective is to earn higher income and save their income for their families in their homeland (Pholphirul & Rukumnuyakit, 2008).

In 2020, the statistics reveal that 27% of immigrant workers are working in Bangkok (Table 3). Fewer immigrant workers are working in the agricultural sector than before; only 26 % of immigrant workers under article 59[2] work in the agricultural producing and processing sector (Table 5). The proportion is lower under other types of articles. The reduction of workers in agricultural jobs also happens to the Thai population as well since productivity and wage of the Thai agricultural sector are almost half of the non-agricultural sector (Poapongsakorn, Ruhs, & Tangjitwisuth, 1998).

Immigrant workers’ job between 2012 and 2020 significantly changed (statistic in 2012 are used for comparison because illegal immigrant in each sector first reveal in 2011 report and show with complete amount in 2012) (Table 4 and 5). Overall number of illegal workers are lower in 2020 as an effect from early stage of COVID-19 pandemic shock. Construction jobs have highest popularity among workers followed by agricultural jobs in 2012. The ratio of workers working in agricultural jobs fall by more than half. Agricultural sector fell to 5th rank from 2nd most popular job done by illegal immigrants in 2020. One of the reasons illegal immigrant workers (article 59, national verification) are mobile to change their jobs is the lack of legal restrictions. Workers under article 59, national verification can work in any physical labor jobs.

Job seeking immigrant workers’ characteristics

Hiring immigrant workers provide advantages to employers. Employers cannot avoid hiring foreign workers because of labor shortage in job positions. Thai workers avoid doing jobs that are considered 3Ds (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) (Pholphirul & Rukumnuyakit, 2008). Low-skill immigrant workers fill almost all physical labor job positions. Especially during an earlier wave of migration, most immigrant workers from the neighboring countries migrants are unregistered workers that do not have a work permit (Table 1). The trends of illegal migrant fluctuate from 1995 through 2005. Foreign workers are later recruited through employment agencies.

The most influential factor to migrate to Thailand is a higher wage than their home countries. Most foreign workers do not have a problem with assimilating to working in Thailand (Chalamwong & Paitoonpong, 2019). Besides, most of them have a positive attitude towards working in Thailand which can be seen from low turnover and long duration of working horizon in Thailand. Though, worker exploitation is frequently found overtime, it does not interrupt migrant inflow.


Statistical data by the Department of Employment showed that most migrant workers migrate illegally (registered as article 59, national verification) (Table 1). The data does not include unregistered migrants. High numbers of unregistered migrants remain unsolved since the beginning of mass migration. Migrant registration has begun in 1992 and has been improving over time. It grants temporary work permit which is 2 years or less and only allows working as physical labor and private servant. Registration engagement comes along with amnesty to solve high numbers of illegal migrants (Paitoonpong & Chalamwong, 2013). A short period of amnesty provided to encourage higher number of register migrants. This strategy significantly increases the amount of registration over the years but the amount of unregistered remain idle with increasing numbers of migrants.

Thailand signs MOU, an international agreement concerning the moving of labors in 2002, with Lao, and with Cambodia and Myanmar in 2003, to import foreign workers legally. The MOU provides two years work permit which allows renewal of another two years and allows the renewal of contracts continuously. In 2005, less than half of workers extend their expired permit (705,293 out of 1.77 million) (Paitoonpong & Chalamwong, 2013). The amount of extending permits is significantly lower than that in 2006 (460,014). The cabinet responded to a low extension rate by allowing them to stay longer. The cabinet approved the quasi-amnesty and extended expired permits period over and over in each year from 2006 through 2011. The numbers of registration continually increase over time. Nonetheless, amnesty incentivized new migrant workers to migrate illegally and then register as illegal (TDRI, 2016). The permit extension announcement also created an incentive for expired permit holders to ignore renewing expired permits on normal expiring timeline because they can renew later when cabinet announces a leniency.

There is a high portion of illegal migrant in Thailand because Thai regulations impose a high cost on a legal migration and work permit. Registration fee cost 3,250 Baht in 2002[3], and 3,880 Baht in 2009[4] where Bangkok, and vicinities minimum wage rate is around 165 and 200 per day respectively (TDRI, 2016). The semiannual renewal fee costs 1200 Baht. Costs not only include monetary value but also time value. Days are spent for verification health checks and the documents required. Most migrants seeking jobs have a strong incentive to avoid these costs as much as possible. Another reason that they illegally migrate apart from the costs is the complication of Thai migration law that creates a barrier which prevents them to do the process by themselves. The simplest method for them to proceed through legal migration has to be done by applying through migration agencies, which poses monetary costs and increase the workers’ risk of being exploited through any process.

The complication and requirements of Thai migration law and regulation highly reduce labor mobility between Thailand and neighboring countries. Regulations impose too much cost to those who try to comply with the law, especially to low skilled foreign laborers in the agricultural sector that earn relatively low income. In addition to the migration regulations, the alien employment act also acts as another barrier. The act limits the occupation that migrants may be able to perform. Some jobs and related activities in forestry such as logging, timbering, and wood sawing are prohibited for alien workers. It also required employees under MOU to be contracted with their employers. Workers under the MOU are unable to change jobs freely or being self-employed. Documents must be issued by the Department of Employment whenever migrant workers change their employers.

Thai regulation also contains other problematic issues such as poor enforcement and poor right protection. Although many illegal migrants from neighboring countries are registered under Article 59, national verification[5], numbers of unregistered illegal workers' estimation remain high. Currently, the estimation of unregistered migrants is uncertain but likely to have the same proportion to registered migrants (Mekong Migration Network, 2020). Poor right protection needs to be taken seriously as well. The exploitation concerning migrant workers is one of the rooted problems because of poor enforcement.


Law and regulation play a significant role in foreign workers' bargaining power. On one hand, the law intends to protect national security and human rights. On the other hand, it exhausts the illegal migrants' bargaining power. Illegal migrants are unable to apply to formal employment, so they must rely on informal employment which are insecure. Illegal status also exposes them to threat of being arrested. Limitation of their employment choice force them to accept lower pay and risk of getting exploited. Foreign labor exploitation is one of the most infamous ongoing social problems in Thailand. The threat to being exploited is found even among legal workers and much worse for those who work illegally.

Due to the high number of foreign labor supply (both legal and illegal) and without foreign labor union in Thailand, employee’s bargaining-power fully lies on the employer's hand. Harsh working conditions, long working hours, and low pay are well-known characteristics of the working conditions for the labor-intensive migrant workers in Thailand, because of poor regulatory enforcement in rural areas. Workers are highly vulnerable to being exploited even though they are legally permitted to work and are contracted.

Although waves of migration had happened since 1980s, exploitation problems are still present. Migrant workers still get paid at a price lower than minimum wage rates which applies wide across all labor-intensive jobs (Phaicharoen, 2020). Migrant workers in the agricultural sector are found to receive the least payment; farmworkers get paid 100-150 Baht per day while the national minimum wage is 330 Baht per day[6] (as enforced on April 2018). Condition is worse in seasonal agricultural workers who do not receive even the most basic protection, such as the minimum wage, overtime pay, rest time, paid leaves, and social security. Exploitations across low skill jobs create another wage standard for migrant workers in the labor market. Hence, these exploitations by employers can also be charged as a legal offense with up to 100,000 Baht[7] fine and 6-months imprisonment, but in real practice workers rarely exercise their rights. In addition, insufficient provision of occupational safety and personal protective equipment for migrant workers places them at an increased risk of pesticide overexposure and workplace injuries (United Nations Thematic Working Group on Migration in Thailand, 2019). 


Exploitation is severe in the farming sector. Laborers on rubber plantation work the longest hours, with 87 % of respondents working more than eight hours per day and 40 % of them working more than 12 hours (Mekong Migration Network, 2020).

From a market point of view, the price is determined by market demand and supply. Employers have no incentive and cannot afford to raise the payment to minimum wage as it will forego their competitiveness. At the same time, laborers are unable to negotiate for their benefits since they are unlikely to risk being unemployed. Or in an extreme case, they can be threatened of getting arrested for working without a permit if employers keep their passports, which will cost them huge fines, and will require them to be transported back to their countries, and blacklisted (United Nations Thematic Working Group on Migration in Thailand, 2019).

Apart from these employment problems, their living conditions and workplace conditions are poor. They are often found living in crowded and poor living places without proper sanitation (Phaicharoen, 2020). Migrant workers must pay for their protective equipment such as rubber boots, safety helmets, rubber gloves, masks, and goggles. Inappropriate use of proper equipment will increase their risks of getting accidents, pesticide overexposure, and other workplace injuries.

Migrant workers are highly exposed to exploitation because of both weak law enforcement and the nature of the job itself. Thai regulatory institutions and law enforcement leave migrants being vulnerable to insecure jobs and without access to labor rights when being exploited, especially if they are illegally migrated. The complication of migration law is an extreme barrier for those low skill migrant workers who seek physical labor jobs. It will take days for them to study through migration regulations and comply with these laws with the assumption that they are literate and have spare time for application. Location and nature of jobs are also contributing to exploitation exposure. The nature of low skilled jobs is highly demanding in remote areas where jobs are insecure and without reach. Some jobs must be carried on continuously for example fishery crew or construction site that have delayed schedules.


COVID-19 pandemic creates a massive negative impact on the global economy, including Thailand. An immediate response to reduce epidemic rates such as epidemic prevention measures, stopping many business activities, population movement control, closing all borders, prohibiting all immigration, and emigration activities have a direct impact on the country's economy, which will affect the employment market and every single individual. Migrant workers are marked as a priority group, being a high potential risk to be COVID-19 carriers and being a large group of the population that will need remedies from the economic impact (Paitoonpong, 2020).

The Ministry of Labor has issued measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the migrant workers, which are

  1. Delaying import approval for migrant workers
  2. Extending expiring work permit to 30 November 2020
  3. Providing knowledge and prevention methods in high density areas
  4. Implementing and ensuring defensive measures in migrant workplaces according to measures prescribed by the Department of Disease Control
  5. Notifying employers to screen migrant workers and monitoring the outbreak of COVID-19
  6. Inspecting, screening, and monitoring migrant workers at the boarding fishery control center

The policy response to the COVID pandemic for migrant workers in Thailand only covers prevention measures and healthcare. It does not provide a remedy for them economically. "RAO MAI TING KAN"[8] policy grants 5,000 Baht[9] for three months remedies (total of 15,000 Baht) only to Thai citizens who are directly affected by COVID-19 state of emergency and prevention measure (Thairath, 2020).

The most vital problem for migrant workers from COVID-19 is the closure of the workplaces, which resulted in getting laid-off. The government's remedial measure is to give priority to the Thai population and less accessible to foreign workers. Accessibility to unemployment compensation provided to those workers is only for those who paid for social security. Providing 62% of daily wage maximum of 90 days to unemployed was just announced on April 2020. In 2019, only 1.1 million out of three million migrant workers paid for social security, and less than 20,000 of migrant worker claim social security benefits monthly (exclude unemployment benefit) (Ministry of Labour, 2019). There is low claim rate because they do not know their rights (Prachachat, 2019). Besides, there are many reports that employers violate the MOU contract by not paying compensation to laid-off employees protected under the MOU (Phaicharoen, 2020).

Therefore, the economic impact from COVID-19 pandemic results in mass lay-off leaving most unemployed migrant workers trapped within Thailand due to closed borders and migration restrictions without the reach of any remedy policy.


Simplify and reduce fees of the migration process, renewal process, and work permits as much as possible. Extend the duration of work permits to reduce renewal cost is also recommended. Migrant workers avoid the legal process because it is too complicated and cost them relatively high compared to their wages. They already bear other costs of migration, reducing the registration fee will encourage them to go through legal migration. This will reduce the barrier to labor mobility.

Improve foreign worker’s accessibility to be members of social security program. Encourage majority of registered migrant workers who are eligible to join social security as many as possible so that they can receive fullbenefits from the program.

Stop giving amnesty and illegal migrants’ registration service. Amnesty and registration service create an incentive for new incoming migrants to migrate illegally. The employment of migrant workers must be done through the MOU instead, to certify that all migrant workers' rights are protected and free from exploitation. It will also ensure their accessibility to social security when needed. Besides, it will improve migration data for both Thailand and their countries of origin and enhance Thai national security.

Revise the MOU conditions and requirements. Occupation restrictions and employment conditions may be irrelevant to the current economy. Minor issues such as "migrant workers under the MOU must inform the Department of employment whenever they change their employers" create legal compliance costs to migrant workers and reduce their mobility.

Strictly enforced the law on illegal migrants. Any misuse of permit type and illegal migrant workers without a work permit must be strictly penalized. Weak law enforcement leads to ineffective control over human behavior, especially toward migrating aliens.


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[1] Natural channel refers to countries’ border separated by sea, mountains, forests, creek, and land without secured checkpoint. 

[2] Article 59 consist of 3 types which are General type, National verification type, and the MOU type. Article 59, National verification refer to migrants from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia who have illegally fled into the Kingdom, are temporarily allowed to work, and stay in the Kingdom. Migrant workers under article 59 are main component of migrant population and represent majority of low-skilled migrant workers in Thailand.

[3] 3,250 THB= 75.58 USD; exchange rate equal to 43.00 THB/USD in 2002.

[4] 3,880 THB= 112.99 USD; exchange rate equal to 34.34 THB/USD in 2009.

[5] Article 59 consist of 3 types which are General type, National verification type, and the MOU type. Article 59, National verification refer to migrants from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia who have illegally fled into the Kingdom, are temporarily allowed to work, and stay in the Kingdom.

[6] 100 THB= 3.10 USD, 150 THB= 4.65 USD, 330 THB=10.21 USD; exchange rate equal to 32.31 THB/USD in 2018

[7] 100,000 THB= 3095.02 USD, converted by using exchange rate equal to 32.31 THB/USD

[8] RAO MAI TING KAN is a Thai name of a government policy used as registration website “เราไม่ทิ้งกัน.com”

[9] 5,000 THB= 159.18 USD, 15,000 THB= 477.55 USD; exchange rate equal to 31.41 THB/USD in 2020.