Thailand on Tuesday said it would allow undocumented migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to work in the country legally for about two years to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Migrants have to sign up online and be registered by an employer before mid-September in order to receive a work permit until February 2023, according to a resolution by the cabinet.
They will first have to undergo health checks at a cost of about 7,200 baht ($240), a Thai government spokeswoman said.
The announcement came as Thailand deals with its worst coronavirus outbreak to-date, with more than 1,500 cases since mid-December having been linked to mostly Burmese migrant workers at a seafood market in central Samut Sakhon province.
"The government has been screening migrants in areas at risk, resulting in some employers moving illegal migrant workers out of certain areas to avoid breaking the law," deputy government spokeswoman Traisuree Taisaranakul told reporters.
"Also, illegal workers are panicking and moving out of certain areas, which risks spreading COVID-19," she said, referring to the resolution during a weekly press conference.
Once the registration period ends in mid-February, authorities should "check, crack down on, arrest and prosecute" undocumented migrant workers, according to the resolution.
Thailand has about 2.2 million registered migrant workers - mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos - but many others work informally in sectors from fishing to farming, activists say.
The Migrant Working Group (MWG) - a network of civil society organisations - estimated that between 600,000 and 800,000 migrants would be eligible to register under the new measures.
The U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) welcomed the resolution but said access to healthcare and COVID-19 testing for migrants "without discrimination" was vital to containing the country's latest coronavirus outbreak.
"Fear of discrimination, arrest, detention and restrictions on movement ... act as a primary barrier to migrants in accessing medical treatment," Geraldine Ansart, IOM's chief of mission in Thailand, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Thai labour ministry last month said about 130,000 migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who had entered the country legally and whose permits were expiring could stay in Thailand to work for another two years.
Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator at MWG, said the government should also allow about 100,000 would-be migrants who have already secured work permits to enter Thailand despite the closure of its borders to contain the spread of coronavirus.
"Some of these migrants, who are waiting to enter the country to work, are in debt having paid brokers or employers various fees to secure jobs," he said.
Though low in comparison to many countries, Thailand's average of 142 new daily cases is a setback for its efforts to keep the virus at bay, having recorded just 6,440 infections and 61 deaths since its first case in January.
The government said on Tuesday that more intensive measures might be necessary and urged the public to cooperate to contain a spread that has seen cases in most regions of the country.