By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of workers have fled Thailand, most of them for homes in neighboring Myanmar, immigration officials said on Monday, after new labor regulations adopted by the military government sparked fear and panic among the migrant community.
Millions of workers from poor neighbors, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, form the backbone of Thailand's manual labor force, with industries such as the multi-billion-dollar seafood business heavily reliant on foreign workers.
Since taking power in a 2014 coup, Thailand's ruling junta has attained varying degrees of success in campaigns to regulate the foreign workforce, spurred partly by media reports that unregulated workers faced exploitation by employers.
About 60,000 workers left between June 23 and 28, and the number has risen since, an Immigration Bureau official said.
"They were of all nationalities, but the biggest group was from Myanmar," Deputy Commissioner Pornchai Kuntee told Reuters. "They are probably very scared."
Following news of the exodus, Thailand on Friday promised a 120-day delay in enforcing parts of the decree, including fines that can range up to 800,000 baht ($23,557) for employers who hire unregistered foreign workers without permits.
Geta Devi, 28, a Myanmar worker based in Bangkok, the Thai capital, said some of her friends panicked after hearing about the decree.
"They went back to Myanmar," she added.
The mass movement leaves undocumented workers vulnerable, said Andy Hall, a British specialist in migrant workers' rights who has monitored such migration in Thailand for more than a decade.
"It's clear to me tens of thousands of migrants only move like this after instigation," Hall, who has worked extensively with Myanmar workers, told Reuters.
Despite the threat of punishment, "corrupt officials" would try to take bribes from fleeing migrants, he said.
"Mass profit is to be made in a short time from the panic and commotion," Hall added.
Police officers who try to extort money from employers or migrant workers will be punished, Thai police chief Chaktip Chaijinda said on Friday, in a bid to discourage exploitation of undocumented workers.
Last month, the United States kept Thailand on a trafficking watch list, saying it did not meet the minimum standards to end human trafficking.
Thailand defended its efforts to stop trafficking and urged U.S. officials to visit and gauge its campaign.
More than 3 million migrants work in Thailand, the International Organization for Migration has said, but rights groups put the figure higher.
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)