The Shadow Workers: Migrant Labor on the Thai-Myanmar Border

By: Hilly McGahan

On my first morning in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, human rights attorney Koreeyor Manuchae took me to the Moei River, which separates Western Thailand from Myanmar. The “Friendship Bridge” serves as the official border crossing from Myawaddy, Mynamar into Mae Sot. But along the river—in plain sight of the bridge—we watched boatloads of migrant workers motoring freely from side to side. Thai soldiers walked the banks of the river. Occasionally they stopped those disembarking to look in a bag, but otherwise they let them go on their way. I was surprised to see this tacit acceptance of a constant stream of unofficial migration.

Between 100,000 and 300,000 migrant workers are employed in and around Mae Sot, a booming border town known for its garment factories and cheap labor. Many of the people I saw crossing the river work in these factories, sewing bras and clothes that are sold in the United States and around the world. (It’s almost impossible to determine which brands Mae Sot’s factories supply, because many are
sub-sub-contractors of larger companies in central Thailand.)

Around Mae Sot, migrant workers also cut flowers, pick fruit and vegetables, refurbish bicycles, and work in the construction industry. “Every sector wants migrant labor,” Koreeyor (she goes by “Yor”) told me. Much like migrant laborers in the United States, the estimated 2.5 million migrant workers in Thailand do the most dangerous and unsavory jobs, and are especially vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

For the last seven years, Yor has worked with migrants in Mae Sot, monitoring labor rights violations and working to improve Thai labor policies. Yor works with a network of community-based organizations called the Migrant Rights Promotion Working Group (MRPWG). Yor is the second attorney I have collaborated with through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), and I spent the last week learning about her work and the realities of migrant laborers in Mae Sot.

I joined Yor for a day of outreach to a Burmese migrant community in Phop Phra, an agricultural town about 25 miles south of Mae Sot. A crowd of workers and their children awaited us in a small community room with bamboo slats for walls. Yor and her Burmese-speaking colleagues began by asking the group about their working conditions and daily life.

We learned that this particular migrant community consists of 1,500 Burmese families. Most are day laborers with no work permits. They work construction and pick tomatoes, cabbages, lettuce, potatoes, and flowers. The workers in the room reported making 150 baht per day (about $4), which is half of Thailand’s minimum wage. To travel to the border at Mae Sot, workers must pass through three police checkpoints. Those without documents must pay police between 100 and 300 baht at each checkpoint. One woman explained that if she wants to drive in Phop Phra, the police demand 200 baht per month to not arrest her for driving without a license. Another woman reported paying 3,000 baht ($86) in bribes just to get to a clinic in Mae Sot to give birth. At the end of the month, the workers told us, there is no money left over to save or to send to family in Myanmar.

No one in the room had a permit to legally work in Thailand. Although Yor and other migrant rights groups have successfully lobbied the Thai government to reduce the costs of work permits, most migrants still can’t afford them. A migrant worker must pay more than 1,000 baht for the permit (about $30), and 1,600 baht ($46) per year for mandatory health insurance. Work permits increase a worker’s chance of receiving minimum wage and also allow migrants to travel legally between provinces. But in addition to the costs of a permit, a Thai employer must also agree to be designated on the work permit. This is almost impossible for the day laborers we were meeting with, who work for a different employer every day.

One of the workers in the room was Chin Ma, a 28-year-old mother of three. She wore a sleeveless floral shirt and her cheeks were brushed with the traditional Burmese thanaka paste. Chin Ma is from Myawaddy (the Myanmar town just across the border), and she told me that life in Phop Phra is still better than life in Myanmar. “I can find work and food here,” she said. Chin Ma came to Phop Phra from Myanmar when she was 13 and has stayed since. Her mother and sister still live in Myanmar, and Chin Ma crosses the border occasionally to visit them. Sometimes, she said, she has lucky days when she goes from Phop Phra to Myawaddy, and the police don’t ask for her identification. Other days are less lucky. When the checkpoint police ask for her
identification and Chin Ma can’t pay the necessary bribes, they arrest her and put her in a cage-like outdoor jail in Mae Sot. “The police give you a free lunch at the jail, though, and don’t charge for deportation to Myanmar, so it’s not that bad,” Chin Ma told me.

None of Chin Ma’s three children has birth certificates. They were born at home in Phop Phra and their births were never registered with the Thai government. Yor and her colleagues told Chin Ma and other parents in the village about the importance and process of obtaining government-issued birth certificates for migrant children born in Thailand. A birth certificate allows a child to study in Thai public schools. Birth certificates also mean a better chance of receiving minimum wage and having labor rights protected when the children enter the workforce. Yor handed out pamphlets that explained how to obtain passports from Myanmar, what labor rights are afforded to migrant workers under Thai law, and how to contact labor law clinics and other organizations that advocate for laborers.

As we left, Chin Ma and the other workers approached Yor and the other presenters from MRPWG. “Thank you for this knowledge,” one woman said. “You have opened our eyes.”

In the United States and in Thailand, laborers like Chin Ma are bringing food to our tables and clothes to our closets at a low cost to us but an extremely high cost to them and their families.

After seven years, Yor is leaving Mae Sot to work near her home in Southern Thailand. She will work with detained Rohingya families who have fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. But she’ll continue
volunteering for MRPWG. When we said goodbye yesterday, she was heading off on her motorbike to write letters to the Thai and Myanmar Labor Ministries, pressuring them to extend and expand work permits for migrant workers.

I will head home to Montana on Sunday with much to think about. These last two weeks with Yor and Da have been so rich, and I am grateful to the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, the YSEALI Program, and the U.S. Department of State for connecting our lives forever. And like the migrant workers in Phop Phra, I, too, am grateful to Yor for opening my eyes.

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