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Burmese migrants, who have arrived ‘legally’ in Thailand under a bilateral agreement intended to boost labour flows between the two countries, continue to be systematically exploited and abused by their Thai employers, activists have warned.
A leading rights group told DVB that Burmese migrants continue to be denied basic labour rights, including health care and safety provisions at the work place, despite a bilateral agreement signed between Burma and Thailand in 2009, which was intended to boost the flow of legal migration between the two countries.
But activists warn that endemic corruption and administrative failures have led to thousands of Burmese migrants falling into the clutches of exploitative employment agencies, who make them to overpay for their documents, often forcing them into debt bondage and unwanted jobs.
“Some agencies brought in [migrants] while there were no job vacancies and some of them ended up on fishing boats,” said Kyaw Thaung, director of the Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT).
“One of the companies [that hired workers under the bilateral agreement] had denied medical assistance to a worker who was blinded in a work-related accident. There is also a case of a female worker, who got hit by a car, cracked her leg bone and was denied compensation,” said Kyaw Thaung.
Since 2009, over 100,000 Burmese migrants have been sent to Thailand under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which aims to boost the legal flow of labour from Burma to Thailand and crack down on “trafficking” and “illegal employment”.
Migrants in Thailand make up about five percent of the county’s workforce, and provide a crucial pool of labour for low-skilled, often dangerous, industries such as fishing and construction. Up to three million people, or about 80 percent, are estimated to come from Burma, and often occupy a quasi-legal existence that leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Although the Thai government has taken steps to improve conditions for migrant workers, including promoting its nationality verification scheme and introducing a 300 Baht (USD$10) daily minimum wage in January, activists say that officials are still not doing enough to ensure that employers comply with existing regulations.
“No one knows whether [migrants] end up in the work places as described in their contracts, whether they get the 300 Baht daily minimum wage, the 50 Baht (USD$1.7) overtime fee – because no [labour] official from either of the two governments have inspected the workplaces. And the MoU agent companies who know this loophole are basically exploiting the workers.”
He blamed both the Thai and Burmese governments for prioritising the flow of migrant labour ahead of human rights.
Currently 51 Burmese migrants in Samut Prakan district’s Mahachai, near Bangkok, are in dispute with their employer over inadequate pay, according to Kyaw Thaung. They have reportedly been provided 5,000 Baht (USD$174) for food by the Burmese Embassy, while the MTA is covering other expenses.
Kyaw Thaung said the group had contacted the Thai and Burmese Labour Ministries, as well as diplomatic officials to raise their concerns but had received no response.
One of the workers, Saw Myat Cho, said he thought he would be able to work under decent conditions since he was sent to Thailand under the MoU but he was wrong.
“I was hoping to be able to work hard and decent, and be able to support my family but now I’m basically being [sheltered] like a refugee. I had heard of these stories but I thought they were just rumours. It’s just really horrendous that I’m actually experiencing this myself,” said Saw Myat Cho.
He was one of 150 Burmese workers sent to work in a shrimp factory on 15 March. But when they arrived, they were told by the factory that there was only space for 75 of them. According to Saw Myat Cho, the factory then decided to hire all of them but to pay them substantially less than initially agreed.
According to the MoU agreement, the cost for a Burmese migrant to come work in Thailand should not exceed 100,000 kyat (USD$114) on the Burmese side and 10,000 Baht (USD$349) on the Thai side. However, Saw Myat Cho said, they had to pay between 250,000 to 300,000 kyat (USD$284 -341) on the Burmese side because of corrupt agents.