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Last month some 500 Burmese migrant workers went on strike at the Ditchar Phannic fishing net factory in Khon Kaen, in northeastern Thailand. The dispute on 5 September has opened up broader issues of labour rights in the Kingdom, with violent flashpoints that characterise the struggle that migrant labourers face in many countries.
Amongst the migrants’ complaints was the perennial issues of their wages, which are below the minimum wage, while in this instance there was the added issue of being forced to work an hour and a half each day, apparently to pay off their work permits. But what started the dispute, according to Jackie Pollock of the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Program (MAP) Foundation, was the dismissal of five workers – someone from the factory had scribbled “cancelled” on their visa.
At the time, the manager at Ditchar Phannic, whom workers knew only as Pyi Yut, kept their documents; a common practice with migrant workers in Thailand to deny them the basic right of freedom of movement.
“We need to show those [documents] and the official resignation letters to our new employers to get jobs with them. Now the current employers’ are going to kick us out without paying our wages”, says Maung San, one of the workers involved in the industrial action.
So on 6 September, as a result of their strike, the manager posted a notification saying that they had to leave and that they could collect their salaries at the Thai government immigration office. Moe Swe of the Yaung Chi Oo Worker’s Association (YCOWA) in Thailand’s Mae Sot suspects however that this was merely a ruse to be rid of the workers, as the immigration authorities would simply ship them off to Mae Sot given that they had no work in Khon Kaen, and without work their work permits would quickly become invalid.
So the workers stayed in place in their accommodation in the isolated factory compound in Khon Kaen.
Payment at the immigration office was beyond protocol and contrary to Thai law. “They have to be paid on the work site”, confirms Pollock. So the workers stayed and demanded their rights, as they remain to this day, despite several demands that they leave. And with a hint of the slave auction, they were told that if they wanted to change work they had to find a new employer, who needed to come and meet the old employer.
Moe Swe alleges that the old employer, in spite and to prevent future industrial action, told the potential new employer from Bangkok that he would need to pay him 10,000 baht (US$330) per worker. “The reason he is trying to annoy the workers is that he wants to teach a lesson to the other workers. If he lets them go easily other workers will also resign when they finish their contracts,” he said. This was subsequently denied by the Pyi Yunt when approached by the workers’ representative.
There is considerable confusion about industrial relations, and the role of the labour protection office appears negligible. And over the weekend, things took a turn for the worse.
“The factory has two separate quarters located at some distance from each other,” says Aung Aung, one of the striking workers. “The lower quarters are a bit close to a forest nearby. Our employers armed some men with guns and that forced the workers to lay patrols along the road to the lower quarters at night.”
“Around 11pm on 8 October, four people arrived on two motorbikes and fired some gun shots,” he continues. “After firing the shots, they became surrounded by the workers and two of them escaped on their bike. The other two, unable to start their motorbike, left it and escaped on foot. It was a red Suzuki motorbike and because we can’t read Thai, we only recognised the numbers 259 on the license plate.
“We called the police. [The police], without even investigating the scene, insisted they will take the bike. We refused to give it to them so they left without even taking a photo of it. Yesterday [10 October], we handed the bike to the police station to avoid having to take responsibility for it.”
MAP said they helped the workers contact the police to account for the bike and protect the workers from accusations of theft. Today, workers informed DVB that 350 of them were told that some of their documents were being transferred to Thailand’s labour ministry office.
MAP has been informed that the workers will get paid at the factory gates on Wednesday. Whether they receive their documents as well is another matter, and their plight is highly uncertain.
“The issue is that they have handed in their resignation but the issue is how to find new work,” Pollock said. ”It’s a problem of what happens next. Where in the system does anyone go? In this situation it’s not just this employer, it’s not addressed by policy. If you change your employer there’s a limited time they can keep their work permit.”
The system by which Burmese migrant workers are ‘allowed’ access to Thailand and the jobs they so desperately need seems to be a causal factor in such disputes, with workers highly dependent upon their employers, and their good will.
So as documents are kept by employers, and given that their legal status in Thailand is linked through their work permit to their employers, means they have limited freedom of movement and choice in a job market, a market which heavily favours employers, or as one migrant worker telling told DVB, “work owners”. Indeed when a worker is not free to leave, has no ability to negotiate wages and conditions for themselves, it may well be more accurate to strip the veneer of language – they are not free agents in an open economy, and the reality is little removed from modern day slavery.