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New Rules, New Fears for Myanmar’s Migrants

BANGKOK, Dec 30 – Rasoimon, 22, remembers the difficult conditions in which she lived when she first came to Thailand from Myanmar’s Mon State six years ago.

As she sits relaxed in her present workplace – a health spa here in the Thai capital– she tells about her life working in a fish packing factory in Mahachai in Thailand’s central Samut Sakhon province. She earned enough

Myanmar migrant workers at the embassy in Bangkok. Photo: TSA

Myanmar migrant workers at the embassy in Bangkok.            Photo: TSA

but it was a tough life in Mahachai, the country’s biggest fishing industry center that is located about 50 km from Bangkok.

“We had to get up at 5 in the morning to prepare for work, because the room we stayed in had so many people, and we had to arrive at the factory at 6 a.m. sharp,” she says. She walked for 15 minutes to reach the factory and worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. She often worked after closing time, because employees were paid 50 baht (about 1.5 US dollars) more for every extra hour of work.

On reaching home, she cooked dinner and could not do anything else “because we were so tired”. The fish factory workers were not allowed to take leave and if absent for one day, there was no pay for that day. “So we have to go and work every day,” she says.

Rasoimon left the fish factory job in Mahachai and came to Bangkok three years ago. “Now, it’s so much more comfortable than Mahachai. We can go out when there is no customer,” she says.   She has a monthly salary of 13,000 baht (390 dollars), gets a bonus of 100 baht (3 dollars) for every 10,000 baht (300 dollars) the spa owner earns. “I’m so happy to stay here.”

Rasoimon is one of the estimated over 2 million migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand. Most of them came from the country’s eastern Mon, Karen and Shan States and the southern Thanintharyi Region. Many had land back home, but falling prices for their paddy and rubber crops forced them to come to neighboring Thailand where they work in agriculture, fishing and construction or in the hotel and tourism industry.

Tense times

Akhran, 18, another migrant from Myanmar, came to Thailand a year ago and works in a large fish processing company in Mahachai. He delivers fresh fish to clients in Bangkok every day. Some days he has to make two trips to Bangkok. “We start our work at 6 in the morning finish at 3 pm. But I work over time every day because it gets me more money,” he says. He earns 310 baht per day and has a day off every Tuesday.

These two seem happy, but the situation of migrant workers from Myanmar has become difficult here since the Thai government announced new strict labor rules on 23 June 2017. Migrant workers without a permit can be jailed for up to five years and face heavy fines. Thai employers hiring migrants without permits can be fined between 400,000 (12,000 dollars) and 800,000 baht (24,000 dollars) per unauthorized worker.

This resulted in thousands of panicked migrant workers from Myanmar returning to their country.

A Myanmar woman who has been selling food on the roadside in the centre of Bangkok’s shopping and tourist area for many years, says large numbers of migrant workers from her country went back home. She says even some Thai businesses hiring migrants from Myanmar relocated to her country. “I am all right as I have worked here for over 10 years. My children live with my mother back home,” she says. But it is hard for migrants now because the cost of living in Thailand is rising.

The situation of migrant workers from Myanmar has become difficult since the Thai government announced new, strict labor rules on 23 June 2017.

Lying low

Although the Thai government decided to delay enforcement of the new rules till New Year’s Day 2018, migrant workers are nervous.

Rasoimon, working in the Bangkok health spa, is afraid of the police whenever she goes out even though she has a passport. She and another Myanmar migrant woman working with her do not go around Bangkok unless they are with their employer.

“Our boss told us not to talk in our language in front of our customers because often the police come here out of their uniform,” she says. This is because the health and beauty spa industry is reserved for Thai nationals and her employer is breaking the law by hiring her and her friend from Myanmar.

Aung Myo Htut, who works in the hotel industry in Bangkok, says: “If you have a passport and can speak Thai, you do not have to be afraid of the police. But if you cannot speak Thai language, you will be trouble if you go outside Bangkok.”

Under new rules, migrant workers are not allowed to go outside the province where they are registered to work. “If you go over to another province, they can arrest you,” he says. The employer’s name should be listed in the migrant’s passport and this should match that on the work permit. If the two do not match, a worker is likely to be arrested. Changing employment is not easy as this requires a recommendation from the former employer.

According to U Aung Kyaw, president of Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) which supports Myanmar migrants in Thailand, it is not easy for migrants to legalize their status. Migrants have to not only pay brokers on both sides of the border but also corrupt officials.

M Embassy

The Myanmar embassy in Bangkok

In order for a migrant to obtain a work permit, the employer in Thailand must send a request to labour authorities in Myanmar. The migrant has to pay 150,000 kyat (about 105 dollars) in fees to Myanmar (Immigration Department) and 2,900 baht to the relevant Thai government agency. This is in addition to paying job brokers.

Migrant workers are often denied their due rights by Thai authorities and employers, according to U Htoo Chit, managing director of the Thailand-based Foundation for Education and Development which helps migrant workers from Myanmar.

“The Thai economy still needs migrant workers for 3D (dangerous, dirty and demeaning) jobs,” he says. It has now become even more difficult for them to get higher quality jobs, he adds.

According to news reports, Thailand’s Labor Ministry estimates there are nearly 2 million migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia who need to be registered before being allowed to work in the country. Some 1.2 million of these are from Myanmar, 616,282 from Cambodia and 159,313 from Laos.


*This story was produced for the 2017 Developing Media Fellowship program of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). Reporting ASEAN is distributing the outputs of the series.


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