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Burmese workers are concerned that a crackdown is imminent after the [Thai military junta’s] National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announced it will review policies on the management of migrant labour.
Despite the junta’s insistence it has no plan to crack down on undocumented alien labour, tens of thousands of Cambodian workers last week fled the country.
So far, there have been no reports of a similar exodus of Burmese workers in Samut Sakhon.
“We are afraid. But we do not dare to speak up. We have not had good experiences with authorities,” said Samarn, 57, a Burmese worker living at a shrimp factory on Rama II Road.
When the Bangkok Post visited the factory, everything appeared normal as more than 100 Burmese workers were busy peeling shrimp, cleaning the factory, and carrying boxes loaded with the seafood.
But Samarn revealed that many Burmese workers, especially those without work permits and with underage children, had packed their belongings, in case they were forced to leave the factory in a hurry.
After hearing the NCPO would visit Samut Sakhon yesterday [16 June], some of the workers hid in woods near the factory.
The NCPO visited the factory to study migrant worker problems and formulate solutions to them.
The NCPO was forced last week to deny claims by Cambodian NGOs of brutality, beatings and nine alleged deaths at the hands of troops, and insisted it had no plans to crack down on migrant workers.
Instead, it claimed to be planning a review of the regulations and systems involved in managing a large foreign workforce.
Burmese labourer Lek, 23, said he heard news of a crackdown from other Cambodians working at the same construction site.
They told him their families in Cambodia had urged them to leave Thailand or risk being killed by Thai troops.
“I did not leave because it seemed to me that only Cambodians are in trouble and I have to earn money for my family,” he said.
“But still, I’m afraid because we are often treated badly. So how do we know whether something bad will not happen to us also?”
Lek was speaking from experience. A year ago he and his friends were detained by police officers, who extorted money from them, even though they had work permits.
In 2007, Burmese workers in Samut Sakhon experienced a crackdown by police. About 700 of them were arrested and held for not having work permits.
“It is still a nightmare for Burmese workers here,” said Sompong Sakaew, director of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN).
“They’ve been fed on fear and the NCPO announcement stirs this fear.”
The LPN has received phone calls from several frightened Burmese workers.
The NCPO set up its committee to review immigration policies for foreign workers on 9 June.
It comprises representatives of the junta, ministries and government officials, but no civil society representatives.
Activists urged the NCPO against a crackdown, saying they had proven ineffective in the past, and only encouraged bribery and human trafficking.
Cambodians leaving Thailand now will return via underground smuggling gangs, they said.
“The NCPO should crack down on underground smuggling and human trafficking rings,” said human rights lawyer Surapong Kongchantuk, from the Lawyers Council of Thailand.
“It wouldn’t be smart if the NCPO chased away foreign workers because Thailand is being watched by the world for its terrible record of human rights violations,” he said.
According to Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 170,000 migrant workers – mostly illegal – have returned from Thailand since early June. The reasons he gave for the mass exodus are that Cambodians heard “rumors” of the Thai military “persecuting” migrants and were afraid; and all private businesses were ordered not to employ any illegal migrant workers, and were letting them go.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on 17 June 2014.