Thailand inked a deal yesterday that would allow the import of Vietnamese labourers, as Thai Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha hailed warming bilateral ties with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung.
The accord is expected to help ease labour shortages in Thailand's construction and fishery sectors, with the latter being under scrutiny in recent years for alleged abuse of migrant workers on fishing boats.
These sectors are now mainly staffed by workers from Cambodia and Myanmar, which have existing labour import agreements with ASEAN's second-largest economy.
"We are strategic partners and not competitors," General Prayut said at a press conference yesterday, after a joint Cabinet meeting which he chaired with the visiting Mr Dung.
According to Thailand's Ministry of Labour, there are just 757 mostly skilled and semi-skilled Vietnamese workers in the country.
However, there are reportedly thousands more who enter the country on tourist visas and stay on to find work, often with little or no legal protection. These illegal workers now have the option of registering to obtain a one-year work permit, say labour officials.
Thailand's central bank last month cut its full-year growth forecast to 3 per cent.
Vietnam, which still benefits from preferential tariff rates in the European Union, is forecast by the World Bank to achieve twice that rate of growth.
The average monthly salary of its youthful workforce of 53.6 million is 4.9 million dong (S$312).
Yesterday, both countries pledged to roughly double the value of bilateral trade to US$20 billion (S$27 billion) by 2020, and create more land, sea and air linkages. They also agreed to begin negotiations for an extradition treaty.
During his one-day trip to Bangkok, Mr Dung had an audience with Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and also met Thai and Vietnamese businessmen.
Talking to reporters, Mr Dung noted how both countries agreed never to allow any party to use the territory of one country to oppose the government of the other. Just last month, Thailand forced the New York-based Human Rights Watch to cancel the launch of a report that alleges persecution of the Montagnard Christian minority in Vietnam.
The police in Thailand said the planned launch of the report at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand could affect "the country's security or could affect the friendship and co-operation between Thailand and Vietnam".
Mr Dung, meanwhile, took the opportunity in Bangkok to press for a resolution to the dispute in the South China Sea, where China's broad and increasingly assertive territorial claims are being contested by ASEAN states Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Thailand is not a claimant state.
"Both countries expressed concern about the uncertainty in the South China Sea, which has an impact on confidence in peace and stability within the region," said Mr Dung. "We also ask every party to... respect international laws... and try to find an agreement through peaceful dialogue within a code of conduct."
There is no code of conduct to settle disputes in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea, which analysts warn could be a future flashpoint. There are concerns over China's reclamations of several reefs into islands, a move which experts say will enable them to be used as military bases.
This article was first published on July 24, 2015.
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