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Government ministers from Thailand and Burma met in Shan state on Wednesday as a stand-off between Burmese migrant factory workers and their Thai employers was underway.
The annual talks between Maung Myint, Burma’s deputy foreign minister, and the Thai labour minister Chalernchai Sri-On that focus on Burmese migrant workers in Thailand were “fruitful”, according to state media.
Up to three million Burmese migrants are estimated to live in Thailand, many of whom work in low-skilled industries where exploitation is rife and access to healthcare and legal aid difficult.
The nationality verification scheme promoted by Bangkok, which attempts to categorise foreign workers in Thailand and supposedly allow them to enjoy equal rights with their local counterparts, was also covered in the bilateral talks, which took place in Pyin Oo Lwin, near Mandalay.
Maung Myint had also “proposed dispatching fresh migrant workers to work legally in Thailand”, Chinese news agency Xinhua said.
The issue of Burmese migrants working in Thailand again came to a head this week after employees in the V&K Pineapple Canning Co fruit factory in Ratchaburi province, west of Bangkok, went on strike amid growing anger at the conduct of the management and poor working conditions.
The head of the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Program (MAP), Jackie Pollock, said that the protest was the “last straw” in their attempts to push for adequate treatment.
On Sunday last week a Burmese worker at V&K was beaten after an altercation with his Thai foreman in the local market place, as was an interpreter who tried to intervene in the dispute. This led to some 700 workers calling primarily for better conditions.
MAP reported that several days later, on 25 January, as many as 200 police arrived to subdue the situation, causing considerable concern. Pollock reported however that “thankfully there was no violence”.
The factory owners eventually said they would meet the workers’ demands, which included raising overtime payment from 20 Thai baht ($US0.65) per hour to 31 Thai baht ($US1) per hour. They also agreed to build an extra 10 toilets – Pollock said there had only been four toilets for around 1000 workers.
“Now workers are waiting this month to see whether that comes to fruition or not,” she said. Asked what sort of official protection there was for migrants, she replied: “There is almost zero protection of Burmese migrant workers by there embassy. There have only been two cases where they’ve actually done something, and those were very high profile.”