Burmese migrant worker abuse is rampant in Thailand.
One 19 year old Karen worker told me that the Thai police were known to abuse and harass workers on a weekly basis, even if they did have a work permit, they were still expected to pay the police to prevent further abuse
With the current state of Burma’s economy, hundreds of thousands of Burmese workers seek employment in neighbouring countries, away from the oppressive military-led State Peace and Development Council, with the most popular destination being Thailand.
An estimated one million Burmese migrant workers are currently in Thailand, but the official numbers only list half of those as being registered with the Thai authorities. The remainder seek employment performing any jobs that allow them to support their families on both sides of the border.
Inside Burma, many are forced into labour by the SPDC, often with no remuneration but in Thailand they are given the chance of earning a small wage.
Migrant workers usually work in the following sectors of the Thai economy: domestic, garment and factory, agriculture and fisheries. Hours are often long, most shifts in the factories start at 7 am and often finish after 9 pm with no overtime payment scheme in place.
Many Thai’s are refusing to perform menial jobs, often hiring Burmese to perform these tasks. These workers usually make the trip from the border regions to Bangkok in search of a small daily wage, often lower than the official Thai daily wage.
The most common complaints from Burmese workers are that of abuse at the hands of their employers, unfair wage disputes, discrimination and in some cases, physical abuse. Burmese are viewed as lower class by Thai’s and often subject to inhumane treatment at the hand of their employers.
If accommodation is supplied, the workers are often charged high rents for a single room and in most cases 8 people will share the living space that is no more than a 7 ft square box.At the border town of Mae Sot, in Northern Thailand, The Peoples Volunteer Association and the Young Chi Oo Burmese Workers Association aim to help Burmese where necessary.
Here I met Phoe Nge, 19, who was shot 7 times by his employer and then left for dead. His crime was that of the bosses wife taking an interest in him. He was asked to visit his boss’s house and was held by the boss’s associates and shot repeatedly. He eventually managed to escape and ran to a friends house, bleeding profusely. Upon arrival at his friends house, he passed out and was rushed to hospital.
Phoe Nge still has a bullet lodged in his back and is recovering from the surgery whilst staying at a safe house provided by the PVA.
Other people I interviewed had been beaten and in some cases, raped by their employers. A small number of cases resulted in murder. The problem stems from the fact that most workers are illegal and often don’t have the same rights as citizens, allowing them protection from abuse, which prevents them from speaking out in fear of being deported back to Burma.
The PVA and Young Chi Oo Burmese Workers Association try to defend workers rights in the Thai border town and have won a handful of large cases against employers who abuse workers. They both keep a list of cases of abuse against the workers and use the legal system where possible to bring the attackers and employers to justice.
In addition to employment issues, the Burmese also struggle with social integration, with domestic violence a big cause for concern. The PVA and Young Chio Oo offer advice and support to all Burmese families and try and prevent domestic violence at home.
Both groups operate illegally in Thailand as Thai law does not allow Burmese associations to be created inside Thailand, but Thai officials try to solve this issue by giving the aid workers cards to identify themselves to the police.
Workers who do speak out about the abuses are often fired and face deportation back to Burma. The PVA have recorded cases whereby factory owners have refused to pay workers the salary owed at the end of a month and called in the Thai Police to have the workers arrested and deported as illegal immigrants.
Mae Sot has numerous textile and garment factories. In most cases observed, Burmese workers made up the majority of workers inside the factories. So if you want to track a parcel, go here. Workers are paid, on average, 70 Thai Baht (R17/$1.50) a day for a 10 hour shift
Not all factory owners abuse their workers. The one factory I did get access to admitted using the Burmese workers, as they were cheaper than Thai labour, but did admit that working conditions were better than others. I was invited inside the factory, which is often out of reach from any westerner in the region, and conditions were suitable.
Thailand does offer a registration system for migrant workers, but the system has many flaws and many key problems still exist, which often leads to the workers being vulnerable to exploitation.