Burmese Workers: Going from Bad to Worse

By Zaw Naing Oo

Khant Zaw was so thirsty and hungry after walking all night without food and water that he drank his urine and ate grass when he reached the hillside hideout before dawn. The other people with him did the same. He was one of a group of Burmese who had crossed over into Thailand, hidden under fishing nets in a small boat that had brought them to the country’s southwestern coastal border province of Ranong the previous night. They were picked up by a vehicle with fake Thai police identification and taken to a forested area to hide till the following night when they were driven to the southern coastal province of Pattani, Thailand’s biggest fishing port. “At that time, I just convinced myself that my urine was just a form of liquid,” Khant Zaw recalled. Drinking urine was far from what he had expected after paying 18,000 baht (530 U.S. dollars) to the middleman who had arranged a job for him in Thailand after he was smuggled across the border.  He was told everything would be all right by the end of July the following year unless he was arrested. Escaping the harsh life It was in December 2006 that Zaw made the perilous journey to Thailand. A worker in Burma’s largest fishing centre in the Irrawady Division, Zaw did not earn enough to support his family. Like tens of thousand of Burmese fleeing harsh living conditions at home, he had decided to go to Thailand to find a better-paying job. Thai Labour Ministry records show about 750,000 registered workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos in Thailand. Almost 80 percent of them are Burmese. The number of unregistered workers from the three neighbouring countries is much larger. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates there are about two million Burmese, Lao and Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand though non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say their number is as high as five million. An average of 65,427 Burmese entered Thailand every month in 2006 without official permission to work, estimates ILO. Burmese migrants like Zaw use the two land border crossings in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai and western Tak provinces or the sea border route to the southern Thai province of Ranong. Middlemen in both countries and local police are involved in the human traffic, says the UN agency. Tough work conditions in host country These “undocumented” or “irregular” workers do jobs shunned by local people and referred to as “3D” – dirty, dangerous and demeaning. They are mainly hired in the Thai fishing, garment and construction industry or as household help. Women also find jobs in the entertainment industry, many of them as commercial sex workers. Young women migrants are highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, note ILO reports. Ma Soe (not her real name) had to sleep with a Thai human smuggler in Tak province when he threatened to take the 11 people in her group including her husband, to the police unless she did what he wanted. A young Burmese migrant woman working in a Thai garment factory said her male supervisor would kiss her in the workplace but she was too afraid to complain. Win Win (not her real name) worked in a rubber plantation in south Thailand with her husband who went every night for rubber tapping, leaving her alone at home. One night, her husband’s supervisor came to her while her husband was away and forced her to have sex with him. This continued for several nights. She was too scared to report to the police fearing her husband would lose his job. When he found out, Win Win decided to leave her husband and went back to Burma alone. To be legally employed in Thailand, migrants need three documents from Thai authorities: a labour card, a medical treatment card and a certificate from the immigration bureau. These are issued against a certificate provided by the employer. In practice, migrants pay about 20,000 baht (600 dollars) each to brokers to arrange these documents. Employers are known to keep the documents with them to prevent workers from leaving the job. “It is impossible to change jobs. If we want to change jobs, we will have to pay another 20,000 baht for a new set of documents,” says Thargyi, a migrant worker. However, many have short duration jobs like construction work and pay 1,000 baht to brokers to find new work subsequently. Migrant workers are paid between 100 and 150 baht (three to 4-1/2 dollars) a day, which is less than the legal Thai minimum daily wage. In Bangkok, rights advocate Myint Wai of the Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma (TACDB) says life is tough for unregistered Burmese migrants working in Thailand who live under constant threat of deportation, making them highly vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. No rights and harassed The lot of registered migrant workers is not much better. Thai labor laws give employers full discretion in dealing with their migrant worker employees, says Myint Wai. In provinces with large migrant worker populations such as Phuket, Tak, Surat Thani, Ranong and Pattani, there are special restrictions on migrants. These include a prohibition on gatherings of more than five migrant workers, owning or riding a motorcycle, going out after 8 p.m. and using mobile phones. There are also restrictions on travel beyond their area of registration. Children of migrant workers cannot be admitted to Thai schools. Thai health authorities say infected Burmese migrants are spreading tuberculosis. Employers are required to arrange regular health checks, but this is rarely provided, says a Burmese worker supervisor in Surat Thani. Police harassment is common. Burmese migrants attending Buddhist merit-making ceremonies are often detained by police in search of undocumented workers. They have to be produced in court and pay an 8,000-Baht penalty. But in one instance in Surat Thani, police took away watches, necklaces and mobile phones from the detained migrants. Some had to pay 5,000 to 6,000 baht to the police. “Although the police do not disturb us when entering the temple compound, they arrest us after the ceremony is over. They always do that. And they do not take us to the court but decide themselves what we have to pay them as penalty,” says Ko Saw an irregular migrant worker who organizes the ceremonies for others like him. On May 9, 2007, police detained about 800 migrant workers in Tak province on national security grounds. A similar police raid took place there in February. In Pattani’s Khanom district, police entered an industrial zone without the owners’ permission, arrested migrant workers and seized their personal belongings. A Burmese woman who did not want to be identified, said she jumped naked into a river to escape and would have drowned if her husband had not saved her. Burmese migrants sometimes also have to cope with hostility from local anti-social elements and workers from other countries. Rights activist Myint Wai often gets phone calls from unregistered Burmese workers informing him of such incidents. A Burmese migrant calls him from Surat Thani to say that three countrymen were assaulted last night by five Thai nationals and hospitalized. “Phone calls like this are normal for me. The informer requested me not to ask his name. Here, Burmese workers are scared to reveal their identity,” he said. Burmese migrants in Khanom district in Pattani fear gangs of unemployed Thai youth who attack them, taking away their money and valuables. They are also scared of registered Cambodian migrant workers there who throw stones at the Burmese houses and sometimes physically assault them. A Burmese woman who did not want to be named, saw some Cambodians kicking a Burmese man one night. “He was calling for help, his hand was broken, but we did not dare to go and help him,” she recalled. “We are victims who are bitten by sharks when trying to save ourselves from drowning in the sea. Sometimes, I imagine about our future; we are hopeless. We had better die instead of living like this,” lamented a Burmese who was deported four times. “I want to say that I cannot live in my country because I cannot earn enough to support my family. That is why I have come to Thailand again and again. But I still want to go back to die in my native land eventually,” he said. Distrusted Police General Bonlink Phonpharnich of the Thai Immigration Bureau thinks it is dangerous for migrant workers to have full labour rights. Migrant workers’ unions would be detrimental to national security, he argued. A large number of Burmese live in places like the Bangkok suburb of Mahachai running small restaurants and a movie hall, he said. In western Kanchanaburi province, Mon ethnic groups from Burma have obtained Thai identity cards and are renting houses, the police official said. “I imagine that Burmese will vote in Thai national elections in future and no one will sing the Thai national anthem,” he said. Rights activists and NGOs disagree and say the migrants are not interested in politics. A Thai lawyer who defends Burmese migrants in court says it is necessary to promote awareness among people of the economic role of migrant workers. An ILO survey of more than 4,000 Thai people found that most believed Thailand did not need migrant workers. While most agreed that migrants should work the same number of hours and get as many holidays as Thai nationals, most did not want them to get the same pay and work benefits as Thai workers Reaching out Several NGOs such as Raks Thai Foundation, Yaung Chi Oo (Burmese Workers’ Association), Migrant Assistance Program, Grassroots Human Right Education and TACDB are providing health care, education and legal assistance to Burmese migrant workers. An ILO handbook in Burmese, titled “Safe Migration” is being given to the migrants. Some Thai employers encourage Burmese workers to learn the Thai language in NGO-run schools. The NGOs are able to do their work because of support from local people, says Ko Myo of Raks Thai. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and NGOs are promoting safe sex among migrant fishery workers in south Thailand. “A fishing trip lasts between three and five months. When they return to port, the men immediately go to commercial sex workers,” says a Raks Thai Foundation member. Some ship owners have night entertainment centres with Burmese women for their migrant workers. According to ILO, more than one million migrant workers moved among the ten ASEAN (Association Southeast Asian Nations) countries in 2005 and it is time the regional forum kept its promise to them, says senior Filipino diplomat Ambassador Rosario Manalo. The ASEAN declaration on protecting migrant workers’ right is non-binding and Ambassador Manalo suggests that members, including Burma and Thailand enforce international obligations like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women to protect their large migrant worker population. (Zaw Naing Oo writes for several journals in Rangoon as a freelancer.)

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