The risks to migrant workers using informal and unregulated labor migration channels are well documented: forced labor, including labor trafficking; debt bondage primarily due to high recruitment fees; child labor; excessive work hours; underpayment and withholding of wages; denial of social benefits; and unchecked health and safety hazards are all among the risks migrant workers face.
Regulation and explicit, enforced protections are widely recognized as critical to mitigating such abuses. Reforms have been urged by industry and NGO initiatives, and government actors have taken steps to make the formal, so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) channel, more responsive, efficient, and effective.
Yet despite these well-documented risks and efforts to curtail recruitment abuses, informal recruitment channels continue to thrive.
The intent of Verité’s new white paper “Thailand Bound: An Exploration of Labor Migration Infrastructures in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Lao PDR” is to explain why.
Verité conducted desk and field research to map out how jobseekers in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Lao PDR learn about jobs in Thailand, weigh risk factors, and choose among the routes open to them, as well as what those routes — formal or informal — entail. Through 168 interviews with people on or connected with this journey, a picture emerged of a highly complex and dynamic arena in which the needs of jobseekers, job-finders, employers, regulators, facilitators, and profiteers meet. The resulting synergies and conflicts exist within a regulatory context that is under pressure to evolve to improve uptake and viability.
Some of the main challenges for governments seeking to protect migrants through regulated channels include:
  • how to reduce direct and indirect costs to jobseekers;
  • how to disseminate information to help jobseekers navigate risks;
  • how to leverage communication technology (including social media) to streamline processes; and
  • how to increase the accountability of the private recruitment agencies that implement the formal recruitment system.
Our findings and observations are intended to complement existing research efforts to further inform strategies for removing barriers to safe, transparent, and sustainable pathways to employment in Thailand.
Some of our main findings include:
  • Irregular migration in the three corridors of Cambodia, Myanmar, and Lao PDR to Thailand remains fully active, and the formal intergovernmental MOU process has not succeeded in “drying out” options for irregular migration or the market for unregulated recruitment and migration intermediaries.
  • Only a small population of jobseekers and migrant workers use the MOU process due to the costly, complicated, and lengthy procedures involved.
  • Despite the overall trend towards the “employer pays” principle, which removes the recruitment cost burden from workers, the MOU process remains costly to workers, in addition to being complicated and lengthy (which contributes to indirect costs). It also does not afford workers flexibility in employment arrangements or choice of employer, nor the ability to terminate employment and return home without penalty.
  • While “regular” migrants are entitled to healthcare and social services, legally mandated wage and benefits, and freedom of movement without fear of being denounced or apprehended in Thailand, the debt created for MOU jobseekers as a result of high recruitment fees can inhibit the workers’ abilities to walk away from a potentially abusive working situation.
  • Complexities and gaps in the formal, legal process have opened up spaces for the involvement of various intermediary actors — subagents, village agents, community contacts, and others — to provide myriad services to workers and become entrenched in the migration regime. Yet the costs of their services and the impact of their involvement on workers are not fully recognized.
For more information, contact Lydia Long at

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