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From Myanmar to Mae Sot

Migrants seek, but do not always find, a better life

by Richard Humphries

MAE SOT, Thailand F rom a distance, the textile factories near Mae Sot, Thailand, loom like fortified castles. The main buildings resemble fully encased airplane hangers. Cement walls enclose the compounds, though sometimes these, in a decorative touch, are plastered with white stucco. Entrance is via sliding gates of iron grid or sheet metal. Guards keep out the unwanted. Some of the larger private realms are in the countryside where only the odd hut or grazing animal hints at habitation.

But behind the walls of individual factories, hundreds, sometimes as many as 2,000 Myanmarese migrants may live and work. The conditions and rewards of the work aren’t particularly good. The level of competition between the factories is severe, and their main connection with local authority is through ritual obeisance and payment of tribute. All that is lacking are moats to complete a picture of medieval estates, run by lords who, instead of riding horses, drive pickups with darkened windows.

As many as 1.5 million Myanmarese may be working in Thailand today and of those, at least 80,000 toil in the Mae Sot area. Migrants labor in garment and manufacturing industries, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and in the sex trade. In Mae Sot, most work in the garment and manufacturing industries, under conditions that are only good in comparison with the wretched ones of the migrants’ homeland, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Identity cards, if the workers have them, are turned over to the factory manager for “safekeeping,” and getting them back isn’t always easy.

“Those in the factories have it tough,” said a spokesman for the Burma Labor Solidarity Organization (BLSO), a grassroots group that promotes better conditions for such migrants. “The lowest paid only receive 40 to 60 baht [100 yen to 150 yen] a day. They have to work three shifts a day,” he continued, “eight to 12 in the morning, one to five in the afternoon, and six to nine in the evening. They get one day off a month, after payday.” In many factories the first payday comes after 40, rather than 30 days, allowing the owner to withhold some payment until the contract finishes. Often the worker will not receive this withheld amount.

Sometimes migrant workers aren’t paid, and complaining is difficult. According to the BLSO, the owner of the textile firm Nasawat Apparel Co. Ltd. withheld workers’ pay for two months. When the workers tried to organize a protest, the owner paid the police to arrest the workforce, and deport them back to Myanmar.

Occasionally, there are success stories. In 1999, at one large factory 3 km from Mae Sot, the factory owner fired three women and one man. They were told to immediately leave the premises. According to the BLSO, “They were still there that night, and four thugs came to the factory. Two of the women were raped and one man who tried to defend them was killed.” Local activists, as well as the workers at the factory, strongly suspected a connection between the owner and the thugs. They organized a three-day strike and demanded the arrest of the four men involved, compensation for the women, and job security of the strike leaders. In the end, the owner paid compensation of 20,000 baht [60 yen,000] to each of the women and to the family of the dead man. No one was fired and the workforce was even paid for the three days they were on strike.

Typically outsiders are not welcome in these businesses, unable to view what happens behind the walls. Inside one small manufacturing concern — a fake diamond factory — workers, some as young as 12, sat on plastic chairs in a dank room and ground stones. From above naked, white bulbs provided light. No one had goggles or other protective gear to deal with the clouds of dust produced by the grinding process. Accommodation was provided in two other rooms and consisted of wooden floors where the workers would sleep packed together like sardines. A single toilet was provided for the 60 to 100 people.

Not all workers live in factory compounds. Some live with their families in shanty hamlets built on otherwise vacant land. One such town of about 200 residents in Mae Sot has rows of connected shacks. The shacks, which are raised a few feet off the ground to protect them from summer floods, have wooden floors but the walls and ceilings are of corrugated metal sheets. The overall effect is stifling and depressing.

However bad conditions may be for the migrants, they are worse in Myanmar. The authorities in Yangon reported a 13.6 percent rise in gross domestic product for 2001, but government economic data is most often described as “whimsical.” The reality is starker: some estimates did have a real GDP growth in 2001, but at 2.3 percent, and inflation was at 20 percent.

Poverty is acute and widespread. Attempts at liberalization by the military junta since 1988 have not been comprehensive, and in any case have only benefited a few, such as the senior military command. The country’s currency, the kyat, has depreciated precipitously. The distortion between the official rate and the parallel one is over 100 to one.

Additionally, the majority of Myanmar’s people are heavily dependent on agriculture, which has suffered repeatedly from structural distortions, low productivity, excessive regulation and the vagaries of weather. As a whole, the economy is near collapse. According to the Asian Development Bank’s Outlook 2002, “the prospects for a large headway in poverty reduction are minimal.”

So, while in recent decades Myanmar’s economy has stagnated, Thailand’s has boomed by comparison. In economic terms, Myanmar’s poor have voted with their feet. Initially, there were relatively few complaints as migrants took jobs regarded as “3-D” — dirty, difficult, and dangerous. It could even be argued that having a large pool of cheap, exploitable labor has helped put Myanmar’s share of teeth into Thailand’s emerging tiger economy.

Thailand, though itself a significant labor exporter, began to bristle as larger and larger numbers of Myanmarese crossed the border, adding to an already large refugee population. Until 1998, official policy seemed to fluctuate between moves to register at least some of the migrant labor force, and moves to deport large numbers en masse. Policy did not always reflect practice since local arrangements often took precedence and Myanmar was loathe to even acknowledge that a problem existed.

Once the 1998 economic crisis began, calls for action reached a crescendo. A policy of fines or possible imprisonment for illegal workers was enacted. The government wanted to deport 300,000 migrants, and within months, the Immigration Commissioner announced that 70,000 “had voluntarily returned to Burma.” In Mae Sot and other areas there were frequent raids, and at one point those “voluntarily returning” were being kept in a fenced-off area under the Friendship Bridge, linking the Mae Sot area with the Myanmar town of Myawaddy.

Deportations could not stem the tide since those deported could simply wait a day before purchasing a one-day border pass for a few kyat or swimming across the river that defines the border in that area. The net result was to force the whole problem further underground and make the migrants even more vulnerable to the whims, largely financial, of employers and local authorities.

A frequent complaint from migrants concerns the need to pay bribes to Thai police to avoid arrest. The amount varies from a few hundred baht to a few thousand, depending on what the officer thinks the person can pay. Failure to pay the requisite amount of “kha sawatdikan” or “welfare money” can lead to time in jail and a ride to the border. This can financially ruin migrants, and even more dangerous, affect activists, who are subjected to the same extortion.

Recently the Thai government has taken a different approach with what is clearly an evolving policy. It noticed that deportations and imprisonments were costing money and not addressing the migrant issue realistically. On August 28, 2001, a new law took effect that allowed for work permits in large numbers, provided the migrants are registered. Some 40,000 permits per year are being allocated for the Mae Sot area.

One fly in the ointment, however, is the large registration fee. Workers, or their employers, are required to pay, in two stages, 4,500 baht (12,000 yen) for a permit that covers two six-month periods. This is also supposed to include the cost of a health examination. Some employers, particularly NGOs that employ small numbers of Myanmarese, have paid for permits. It is difficult to imagine, however, that many factory owners will pay without some pressure, or that individual migrants will want to give up what, for many, amounts to two-months wages. However, Thailand continues to raid factories and deport illegal migrants. The Shinawatra government is especially committed to doing so and began a new campaign, ironically, on May 1, a day celebrating labor in many countries. Those now caught in Mae Sot are sent to a Myanmar-government run reception center in Myawaddy.

On a more positive note, there are some efforts afoot to improve health care for migrants in the Mae Sot area. Dr. Cynthia Maung, a Karen refugee who runs Mae Tao clinic, a well-known facility just outside town, mentioned that local authorities wanted to include her in an outreach program that will, among other things, increase the amount of primary health care available to migrants.

There has been a political thaw in Myanmar that has offered some hope for the future, but this has appeared to have stalled. In the end, whatever the level of political progress, the migrant issue is likely to remain for many years to come. It can only be hoped that politicians do something to improve conditions on both sides of the border. As the BLSO member said, “Many of our countrymen have come to Thailand as migrants, so we should all support them as we can. They are a forgotten people.”