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Thailand and
Migrant Workers
in Brief


Migrant workers

For the last two decades, migrant workers have been crucial to Thailand's economy. Thailand leads the ASEAN region in hosting migrant workers, with approximately 2.6 million documented migrants as of December 2023. The majority, around 2.3 million, come from neighboring lower-income countries like Myanmar, The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Many foreign migrant workers reside in Bangkok (approximately 522,000) while the second largest population is in Samut Sakhon province (approximately 219,550). These workers are mostly employed in low-waged jobs in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, fisheries, domestic work, and hospitality.

Currently, one in eight workers in Thailand are migrants. Their strength drives the Thai economy through the “3D” work categories (Difficult, Dangerous, and Dirty), which Thai workers often avoid or, if they do work in those categories, require higher wages. However, a significant decreased number of migrant workers following the COVID-19 pandemic depicts how much the Thai economy depends on their labor, as business activities have slowed across sectors such as construction, agriculture, fishery, and service industries.

Despite the importance of migrant workers to Thailand’s economy, many migrant workers are exploited or unfairly taken advantage of. Migrant workers, and even their employers, often do not know that migrant workers in Thailand are entitled to basic workers’ rights under the Thai law, specifically The Labour Protection Act B.E. 2541, which states that migrants can legally register for work permits, allowing them to access public health and education services.

Amongst migrant workers, utilization of public health services is relatively low due to a number of social and financial barriers. An estimated 64% of regular migrants (1.97 million) are enrolled in a public health insurance scheme, but the share drops to 51% for undocumented migrants.

Migrant workers’ children do have access to public education. However, in some cases, schooling is too far from work sites, and parents are unable to take their children to school or cannot afford transportation fees or school uniforms. There are other options available, including both Thai government and NGO-provided informal education and migrant learning centers. More than 164,000 migrant children are enrolled in migrant learning centers. However, it is estimated that 200,000 migrant children remain out of school and are not receiving any form of education.

Throughout the years, Thailand has made efforts to improve its labor migration governance and enhance migrant rights and welfare.

Migrant Workers
and Their Contributions
to the Thai Economy

It is estimated that migrant workers currently constitute around 10% of Thailand’s total labor force. In some economic sectors, such as construction and fishing, migrant workers represent almost 80% of the total workforce, making these sectors heavily reliant on the contribution of migrant workers.

Over the past 20 years, migrant workers have contributed to economic development more broadly throughout Southeast Asia


Approximately 41% of Thailand’s total land area (51.3 million hectares) is used for agricultural purposes. Smallholder farmers dominate the agricultural sector, and many are unable to afford the costs associated with agricultural machinery. Therefore, Thailand relies heavily on manual labor to maintain its agricultural economy. Because of the declining number of Thai nationals willing to pursue agricultural work, the sector has become increasingly dependent on migrant workers. There are currently 436,100 migrant workers from Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Myanmar employed in the agricultural sector.

A lack migrant workers in agriculture puts farm owners in a difficult situation, for example in the sugar industry. Without migrant workers to work on sugar plantations, chopping weeds and fertilizing the soils, Thai farm owners will lose opportunities to maximize their profits because the sugarcane will not be fully grown or could yield less sugar when processed in a sugar mill. Substituting this with Thai workers is not a good option as Thai workers tend to work in industrial factories and demand higher wages. This results in significantly increased harvest costs and affects the cost of sugar production.

“Migrant workers are more hardworking than Thais, honestly. This year we have about 16,000 sq.m. of sugarcane to harvest and I am depending on them to do the work”

— Lamyoi Photooh
a sugarcane farm owner, Sa Kaeo province.

Read more about her story

Read more about her story

“Boots were vital for work as it was dark and dangerous with snakes, scorpions, and other venomous animals that could harm us. Without a flashlight, we could not see anything. Sometimes, we carried at least two flashlights, to guide us each step of the way.”

— Zin Mar Cho,
a female worker in rubber plantation in Surat Thani.


Asia is the largest construction market worldwide, accounting for 44 % of global construction spending. The construction sector contributes approximately 2.6 % of Thailand’s gross domestic product and 6% of its employment. Thailand is a key economic center in southeast Asia and aims to build on this to become a hub for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

The Thai Government estimates there are around 440,900 documented migrant workers in the construction sector, nearly 40% of which are women. About half of the documented migrant workers in construction are from Myanmar and the other half from Cambodia. The number of undocumented migrant workers is unknown, but they likely make up a significant portion of the total workforce.




The COVID pandemic illustrates the importance of workers from Myanmar, The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Cambodia to Thailand’s construction sector. The recent pandemic forced migrant workers to return home, causing a severe labor shortage in Thailand’s construction sector. It is estimated that approximately 100,000-200,000 migrant workers disappeared from the construction sector, resulting in billions of baht damage across the sector. Construction projects needed to sub-contract workers to replace them, causing labor costs to increase by about 10%.

However, nearly all migrant workers in the sector are day laborers, rather than salaried, meaning both workplaces and workers are temporary. Workers must move at the end of the construction cycle for which they are working. The sector is further fragmented by multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors on any given project. These factors affect the ability of migrant workers to organize and advocate for better working conditions.

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“If Myanmar is better, I would go straight home. I didn’t expect to be here this long.”

Aye Mi San, a female construction worker in Chiang Rai, was told by her employer that she would be fired if she and her friends ask to get paid with a minimum wage again. Currently, she has nowhere to go but to continue working on a construction site for 240 baht per day.

and seafood

Thailand’s seafood industry is a key contributor to its economic development. Thailand produces around 3.8 million tons of seafood every year, 71% of which is destined for export markets. Over the last four decades, Thailand’s seafood industry has experienced significant growth. Today, it ranks third after China and Norway in terms of fish and fishery product exports. Apart from their economic contributions, the fishing and seafood industries play important roles in job creation.

In 2017, the sector employed approximately 600,000 workers. More than 302,000 of those employed were registered migrants, primarily from Myanmar and Cambodia, especially in the Samut Sakhon province, which is home to the largest community of Burmese migrant workers in the country. The provincial health office reports that more than half of the migrant fishery workforce are undocumented. It is believed that the economy in Samut Sakhon will collapse if migrant workers stop working. However, many migrant workers in Thailand’s seafood industry are victims of human trafficking and forced labor. Workers have been reportedly forced to work more than 15 hours a day for many days consecutively without enough rest. Some are drugged or have their documents confiscated so they are forced to work on the boat. Those who can no longer work are left on the streets without any payment.

It is believed that the economy in Samut Sakhon will collapse if these migrant workers stop working. However, the working conditions many migrant workers experience in Thailand’s fishing industry are such that fishers are often referred to as victims of human trafficking for forced labor.

Workers have been reportedly forced to work more than 15 hours a day for many days consecutively without enough rest. Some are drugged or have their document confiscated so that they continue to work on the boat. Those who can no longer work are left on a street without any payment.

By this time, Dihlaing was addicted to the drugs that the broker had supplied him so that he could be controlled. These affected him so badly that he was no longer able to work as a fisherman.

Dihlaing Oo, a fisherman in Phuket

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It is estimated that up to $10 billion in migrant worker earnings is moved throughout the region, through both formal and informal channels, benefiting Thailand and neighboring countries. Communities and families in Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Vietnam receive money sent from migrant workers, helping improve living standards and reduce poverty at the household level, in source countries and in Thailand.

Migrant Workers
and Cultural Diversity
in Thailand

In addition to economic contributions, migrants from Myanmar, The Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Cambodia have contributed to the diversity and richness of the Thai culture that we see today. The diversity of Thai cultures and those of the neighboring countries are distinct from each other as evidenced through clothing, food, architecture, and more.


Cultural exchanges are evident through the clothing that Thais have been wearing in daily life since the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods. One interesting example is the loincloth. Wearing a loincloth (Chong Kaben in Khmer) was very common for Thai men and women in in the past. Thais adopted loincloth textiles and ways of dressing from Cambodians (and Cambodians from Indians) who have been in close contact with Thailand as a neighboring country. Although it is no longer popular to wear a loincloth in daily life, loincloths are seen in several traditional Thai dances and performances. Recently, the government encouraged younger Thais to wear it when attending national events or on special occasions.

As we seek to understand the origins of these cultures, we will become more understanding and compassionate towards foreigners and migrant workers because they are undeniably a part of Thai society. They are the people who share our borders with us and enter Thailand to find work. They have a way of life that is so close to Thai people that we are almost indistinguishable from each other.

Explore more

About the Thai cultural exchanges in
The MATTER X Inside Khonok