Laos Registers Workers Left Unemployed by COVID-19, Including Returned Migrants

2020-05-12
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School grounds converted into makeshift coronavirus quarantine centers in Champassak province, Laos in a file photo.
School grounds converted into makeshift coronavirus quarantine centers in Champassak province, Laos in a file photo.
Citizen Journalist

Laos’ Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare is registering information about Lao citizens who lost their jobs due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the first step in what the workers hope will be a government response to help them get through tough times, sources in Laos told RFA.

“At present, the ministry is registering [Lao citizen] workers, both abroad and inside the country, who have been affected by COVID-19,” an official of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, who requested anonymity, told RFA’s Lao Service Monday.

“We will report it to the government so that the government can help them find work,” the official said.

According to the official there are approximately 140,000 Lao workers abroad, mostly in Thailand, and thousands of jobless at home.

The Lao government is ready to allow workers to return to Thailand and other countries, or allow them to apply for jobs available in Laos, the official said.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the government has begun easing restrictions to allow some businesses to reopen. Many Laotians who returned to Laos during the onset of the pandemic in Thailand are looking forward to getting back to work.

“I’m waiting. I can’t wait for the border to reopen,” a young Laotian, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA.

The young Laotian had been working at a restaurant near Bangkok before becoming unemployed due to the deadly virus.

“I have work to do over there. It’s the same job. The restaurant is also waiting for me. We’ve been in contact over the phone. As soon as the border is open, I’m going,” the young Laotian said.

But according to the same Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare official, opening the border will not be a simple process.

“The workers must wait for the reopening of the border. They have to wait for an order from the prime minister,” the official said, adding that this was not a decision the prime minster can make unilaterally.

“He has to check with the destination country [in this case, Thailand] first, before he can allow the workers to go back there,” the official said.

The Thai government is scheduled to ease restrictions for a second time on May 15, which will allow more restaurants, shopping malls and beauty shops to reopen, but the international border is expected to remain closed.

Lao migrants return illegally

Despite an easing of restrictions in Thailand, there are many Lao citizens who are out of work, but who are unable to return to Laos because the border is closed.

Many of the stranded Laotians have attempted to return to Laos illegally.

In one such case on May 4, 29 Lao migrants rode in a private boat across the Mekong river to their villages on the other side of the river, near the Lao capital Vientiane.

“Those were local people. They rode a relative’s boat through a traditional border point. At first they stayed on an island, but were able to sneak across to their villages at night,” a member of the Vientiane Task Force Committee on COVID-19 Prevention and Control, who requested anonymity, told RFA.

“But the village authorities found them, picked them up and sent them to the quarantine center, where they must remain for 14 days,” the task force member said.

Another group of 349 Lao migrants who were waiting in Thailand’s Nongkhai city for days, were allowed to cross the First Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge into Laos on May 9.

According to the task force member, all the workers who returned, either legally or illegally have been sent to a quarantine center in Vientiane.

The branch of the task force in Savannakhet province is under a similar situation.

“We have released some from quarantine and taken in some newcomers,” a member of the task force there told RFA Monday.

“A lot of workers are still coming because they have no jobs in Thailand,” the Savannakhet task force member said.

In Champassak province, 322 Lao migrants were allowed to return home through a border gate on May 9.

“On their arrival they were sent to three [quarantine] centers,” an official who processed the migrants’ paperwork told RFA.

A Lao migrant stranded in Thailand, who requested anonymity to speak freely, hopes the border can be reopened soon.

“Here in Thailand, I have no job. I want the governments to reopen the border as soon as possible. I want to go home, and when the situation improves I’ll come back,” he said.

Food shortages

Many of the quarantine centers that house the Lao migrants when they return from Thailand are running out of food supplies as they take on more internees.

“The two largest centers are occupied by more than 50 migrants each, and they are running out of food,” a health worker in Pakse, Champassak province, told RFA on Tuesday.

“We are requesting food donations from social organizations, private donors and the government, but that’s still not enough,” the health worker said.

A food shortage has affected the quarantine centers in Vientiane also.

“We receive some food donations, including instant noodles, canned fish and other dry food, and we distribute them to over 50 quarantined migrants, but these donations are not sufficient,” a member of the local branch of the COVID-19 task force told RFA.

The quarantine centers in Oudomxay province did not report food shortages thanks to a 50,000 kip (U.S. $5.50) food allowance provided by local authorities.

Bun in Savannakhet province, all the quarantine centers have been closed, with the migrants released.

The Ministry of Health has called on the private sector to provide assistance to the quarantine centers.

“[Migrants] are still coming into the [quarantine] centers that are facing shortages of food, water and other necessities. [The public] can contact the task force in the capital to donate food,” Lao's health minister told RFA on Monday.

There are 60 quarantine centers in total in Laos, housing 1,616 migrants. One quarantine center in Vientiane is currently housing 374 migrants who recently returned to Laos from Thailand.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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