Burmese migrants face ‘systemic’ exploitation near border

Burmese migrants face ‘systemic’ exploitation near border

“I was fired two days after my child was born,” explains Zaw Lay, gesturing to his infant son cradled in his mother’s arms on the dusty floor. “I begged them not to do it, but it didn’t work.”

A solitary fan whirrs over the heads of a cluster of Burmese migrants, who are sprawled next to him in the sweltering heat of a grimy safe house near the border town Mae Sot in western Thailand. They are among 87 workers, who lost their jobs and housing at a major Thai garment factory in April after staging a series of protests demanding better pay.

It followed a government decision to raise the minimum wage in Thailand to (US$10) 300 baht per day. But Zaw Lay, a trained accountant, says he has never been paid minimum wage, even though he has worked legally in Thailand for nearly a decade. Nor did the workers demand it for fear of reprisals against their unregistered colleagues.

“We are entitled to the 300 baht minimum wage,” he says. “But a majority of the factory’s workers don’t have a work permit, so if we fought for the 300 baht, then the rest might have to go.”

Initially the company offered a compromise including (US$6) 185 baht a day plus accommodation. They also pledged to help them carry out their nationality verification (NV) process, which migrants are obligated to complete in order to work legally in the Kingdom.

But their applications were never submitted and soon afterwards the company demanded that the workers pay the full NV registration fee upfront, totalling (US$141) 4,250 baht, which most of them couldn’t afford. When they asked to pay in installments, their bosses refused. Labour rights expert Jackie Pollock describes it as a “sneaky” attempt to manipulate a group of migrants, who have shown “that they know how to use the law”.

Seventeen of the workers were fired on the spot, while another 70 walked out in protest. All of them were replaced by a fresh troupe of illegal migrants, who are now working 11 hours a day for as little as (US$2.91) 90 baht. Zaw Lay says the new arrivals were even charged an arbitrary (US$32.4) 1,000 baht “training fee” as part of the induction process.

Although both the wage hike and the NV process are meant to improve conditions for migrants, activists say that little has changed, especially in remote areas near the Burmese border.

“In places like Mae Sot, which were set up purely on the basis of cheap labour – minimum wage has not helped at all,” says Pollock, Director of the MAP Foundation, a leading migrant rights group in Thailand.

She adds that factories have simply adapted to the new rules by colluding with local authorities to set up travel restrictions on migrant workers, even if they carry legal documents. “They know that if migrants can leave Mae Sot, of course they will go somewhere where they will get paid more.”

[pullquote] “A lot of migrants are falling prey to brokers who are promising them registration and then just running away with the money” [/pullquote]

A policy directive issued in June last year outlines instructions for immigration officials in Tak province to prevent all migrants carrying temporary passports from leaving the area. A local migrant told DVB he has to pay (US$32.4) 1,000 baht each time he passes through the Huay Hin Fon checkpoint heading eastward along the mountainous road from Mae Sot.

Meanwhile, the NV process – which was introduced in 2008 to issue temporary passports to migrant workers in Thailand — has disintegrated into a mess of corruption, exploitation and abuse. Applicants are reliant on their employers to complete the process, who can easily refuse with no repercussions. Others fall into the clutches of corrupt “broker” agencies that charge exorbitant prices to act as the “middle-man”.

Zaw Lay, who has a work permit and documents under Thailand’s previous registration scheme, says he is now being forced to pay (US$484.42) 15,000 baht to a local broker agency to renew his papers. In reality, it should cost no more than (US$114.65) 3,550 baht for the entire process, including a temporary passport, two-year visa, medical checkup and a one-year work permit.

But poor regulation and a lack of transparency mean that agents can set an arbitrary price, or even scam workers entirely.

“A lot of migrants are falling prey to brokers who are promising them registration and then just running away with the money,” says a local expert on migrant rights, who asked not to be named.

Indeed, allegations of corruption run to the very top of the Thai and Burmese administrative organs responsible for the NV process. Although the Burmese government has taken some steps towards improving accountability, such as formally publishing the price of temporary passports (US$17.7 or 550 baht), inside sources say that many local officials are involved.

“The Labour Ministry is making some efforts that are commendable, but there are many officials in the [Burmese] government, who are working with Thai people to get their percentage of the profit,” explains an expert with inside knowledge.

Myint Aung, who was fired along with Zaw Lay, says they repeatedly appealed to the Burmese embassy for help, but their requests were ignored. The Thai government has also come under fire for a perceived lack of political will to help migrants working along the border. Although the authorities have run some awareness campaigns, Pollock says that employers “know there’s no enforcement and they certainly don’t fear it”.

The NV registration deadline has been repeatedly delayed since 2010 – most recently to mid- August 2013. Activists say it only serves to benefit corrupt employers, brokers and authorities, and perpetuates a constant sense of fear among the migrant population.

As of March 2013, only 331 workers from Mae Sot had registered under the NV process, according to government statistics, even though more than 100,000 Burmese migrants are estimated to live and work in the area. The MAP Foundation describes the number as “amazingly low but not surprising”.

The vast majority simply cannot afford to bribe an agent, say locals, while others prefer “to just pay the police” and stay under their employer’s protection. Kyaw Myo Aung, another deposed factory worker who had no documents during his time at the garment factory, explains that there wasn’t “much difference” between registered and unregistered workers anyway, and they all got paid the same.

In fact, everyone was issued with an identity card, which effectively marked them as “property” of their local employer.

“The factory [bribes] money to the police – for which they cut (US$4.85) 150 baht each month from the workers – and so police won’t arrest those carrying these cards,” explains Myint Aung, holding up a dilapidated green card. He adds that migrants with temporary passports might still get harassed or extorted by the police, but a flash of your factory card will extend workers some local privileges.

While activists agree that legal registration is the best way to protect migrant workers, they insist it must be done right.

“The problem is that people are going through this long complicated process and in the end nothing changes,” says Pollock. “We have a report on our website where one migrants says: ‘I used to just pay the police, now I pay immigration, the department of employment, the broker, and I don’t get anything more, I’m worse off than I was before’.”

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