This blog post was written by HABITABLE partner Raks Thai Foundation. It is the first of a series of monthly blog posts that will be released by the HABITABLE project and written by different partners within the consortium.
Although COVID-19 has significantly reduced CO2 emissions around the world including Thailand, the situation is temporary, and the effects of climate change have continued to occur (Heidt, 2020). The economic disruptions caused by the spread of COVID-19 have mostly affected tourism, the production and export sectors, and all supply chains. The unemployment rate in the country’s capital city Bangkok rose to 9.6 per cent in May 2020 as a result of COVID-19 and its prevention measures, such as the national lockdown, border closure, international flight restriction, obligatory face mask-wearing, the closing down of some businesses, and social distancing measures, all of which prevented people from working/engaging in economic activities (Kasikorn Research Centre, 2020). Employers are making efforts to ensure that their businesses can survive during the crisis by taking cost reduction measures such as lay-offs and reducing employees' wages and benefits in accordance with labour laws and regulations. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the negotiation power of workers in relation to the employer.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic associated with climate risks and household resilience?
Thailand does not suffer much from a direct impact of the virus spreading, but is very much suffering from an economic recession brought on by national lockdown measures. These measures are cutting off all flows, including financial, people (tourist and labour), and capital.
Service (including tourism, airline) and industrial (rubber, plastic, chemical, and automobile) sectors are badly affected by this pandemic, due to travel bans, a lack of tourists, and the cancellation of product orders. Internal migrants losing jobs might consider returning home in order to reduce their living cost in the place of destination (usually in urban areas such as Bangkok or at tourist destinations) and to limit the spread of the virus. The majority of internal migrants, who are working and living in Bangkok, come from the Northeast (UNESCO, 2018). Migration is considered one of the most important household strategies to improve household livelihood, as well as to cope and respond to climate-related risks.
At the same time, the migrants’ families at the place of origin (at home), who rely on agriculture for their living, are encountering the consequences of climate-related risks such as severe floods and droughts, especially in the North and Northeast of Thailand. Agriculture plays a vital role in the household in terms of income and food security. Agricultural products are highly dependent on specific climate conditions. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have enhanced multiple risks and stressors to migrants and migrant households, which may reduce the household’s adaptive capacity in response to climate-related risks. Neither the government nor community has prepared for this shock.
Photo 1: Farmers watering their crop in antipation of another long dry spell, photo by Sopon Naruchaikusol.
Differences in decisions to stay or leave
Migrants have made different decisions to stay or return “home” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Internal Migration: Formal workers who have lost their jobs from the lockdown measures have social security (article 33) coverage. They can apply for the relief measure with a ceiling of up to THB15,000 per month, for a maximum of 90 - 200 days. Many informal workers who are unable to work due to COVID-19 restrictions (i.e. domestic workers, motorcycle and taxi drivers, masseurs, beauty salon workers, street vendors, etc.), particularly in Bangkok and major tourist areas such as Phuket and the Chiangmai provinces, decided to return to their communities of origin to cut their unnecessary living costs. The Ministry of Finance has offered a special scheme providing financial relief to about 14 million informal workers. The scheme offers around THB5,000 per month for three months, and aims to help relieve the financial burden caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some migrants have shifted their set of skills in response to covid-19 restrictions. They have become gig workers (flexible workers), such as food deliverers, online platform workers, etc., in order to keep living in the city during the national lockdown.
International Migration: From phone interviews conducted with returnees and migrant family members in September and October 2020, it was gathered that Thai overseas migrants decided to stay at their jobs in their countries of destination. This was especially the case in countries with solid COVID-19 responses and social protection such as Taiwan, Israel, etc. Only migrants who needed to return after completing their employment contract decided to return to Thailand. Moreover, undocumented Thai workers in South Korea have been able to return to Thailand after the South Korea Immigration Service announced the new Korean amnesty measure for overstayed Thai migrants on December 11th, 2019. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Labour requested authorities in destination countries to set up COVID screening for returning Thais requiring 14 days of self-quarantine prior to departure, a medical certificate (fit-to-fly), and a filled-in online registration for the repatriation flight. Migrants must spend an additional 14 days in quarantine at the state or local quarantine after arrival in Thailand.
Cutting remittances may reduce the household capacity to cope with climate change. Households are faced with severe droughts in the dry season and storms and floods in the rainy season (conditions brought on by climate change) or with socio-economic conditions, e.g. debt payment and household expenditure. Migrants trade off their additional burden by reducing work hours, limiting or cutting overtime, and limiting weekly or general work holidays, in order to continue working abroad. Migrants are also unconfident about their re-entry and employment situation in the country of destination. Most migrants have therefore decided to remain in their jobs abroad. In the case of seasonal migration (approx. 3 months: July – September), such as berry picking in Sweden and/or peat moss collecting in Finland, Thai migrants have postponed their travel to next year instead. Some migrants have had to pay a cancellation fee (e.g. air ticket, organisation cost) to the manpower company with which they booked their trip.
Photo 2: Thai migrants report their return and departure at a labour control office in the airport, photo by Sopon Naruchaikusol.
Temporary changes in international remittance flows
Although the Worldbank (2020) estimated that remittance flows to low and middle-income countries dropped by around 20 per cent, for Thailand, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a temporary effect on remittances from abroad. Remittance flows have doubled from the past five years. In April and May 2020, remittances declined only 7.5 per cent and 3.9 per cent in comparison with April and May 2019. Remittances from abroad play an important role in shifting living conditions. They contribute to covering living expenses, education, farm investment, and debt payment. Remittances also support households in responding to climate-related risks, for example by improving the irrigation system, crop diversification, etc. Remittances do not only contribute to the migrant household, but also boost the national economy.
Table 1: Remittance of Thai migrants from oversea sending through BOT system
Unit: Million THB
Source: Department of Employment, 2020
Remark: 1 THB = 0.02816 EUR
Currently unemployed (internal) migrants and returnees, who have returned to their home, are looking for opportunities to work overseas after COVID-19, particularly in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Israel. The government is promoting new job opportunities through an official channel provided by bi-lateral agreement programs. Migrants will receive all necessary social protection while they are working abroad. Easing country lockdown measures will additionally attract tourists to boost the employment rate and the national economy.
Department of Employment. 2020. Remittances of Thai Labour Migrants Sending Through Bank of Thailand 2015 - 2020. Ministry of Labour. Available at: https://www.doe.go.th/prd/overseas/statistic/param/site/149/cat/81/sub/69/pull/sub_category/view/list-label
Heidt A. 2020. COVID-19 Lockdowns Will Have Negligible Effect on Climate Change. Available at: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/covid-19-lockdowns-will-have-negligible-effect-on-climate-change-67808
Kasikorn Research Centre. 2020. Business Brief No.3868: Unemployment rate in Bangkok rose to 9.6 percent in May 2020. Available at: https://kasikornresearch.com/en/analysis/k-econ/economy/Pages/y3868.aspx
UNESCO. 2018. Overview of Internal Migration in Thailand. Policy Briefs on Internal Migration in Southeast Asia. Available at: https://bangkok.unesco.org/sites/default/files/assets/article/Social%20and%20Human%20Sciences/publications/thailand.pdf
Worldbank. 2020. COVID-19 CRISIS THROUGH A MIGRATION LENS. Migration and Development Brief 32 April 2020. Available at: https://www.knomad.org/sites/default/files/2020-06/R8_Migration%26Remittances_brief32.pdf