Female migrants see dark side of China's border

A growing number of Burmese migrant women on the Chinese border face abuse, including workplace discrimination, violence and sexual exploitation, according to new research by the Burma Women’s Union (BWO).

On top of exploitative working conditions, women receive lower pay than men, no maternity leave or benefits and regularly suffer sexual harassment at the hands of employers, reveals the study based on 32 interviews with female migrant workers in the Chinese border town of Ruili.

There are no mechanisms for workers to seek redress for cases of exploitation of their rights and they are forbidden from organising in unions.

“Workers generally don’t dare make formal complaints to police about ill treatment, as they fear that the police will take the side of the Chinese employers,” warns a BWO report.

Women workers are particularly vulnerable and earn as little as 300 yuan ($US46) a month – often less than half of their male counterparts. Sexual harassment is tacitly accepted as normal. “Some ‘laobans’ sexually harass their women workers, but when this happens, the women usually leave and warn other workers about that ‘laoban’,” reports one migrant, using the Mandarin word for ‘boss’.

They are also subject to dangerous working conditions, such as using hazardous equipment and chemicals to polish wood ornaments for the Chinese markets. Risks are particularly high for migrant sex workers, who are often forced to have unprotected sex, and face violence from clients, especially those who are drug users.

“The illegality of sex work in China, making it clandestine and unregulated, leaves sex workers particularly vulnerable to health, safety and security risks,” says the report. The study indicates that many workers were already employed in the sex industry in Burma, but migrated to China where social attitudes are more permissive.

“Some of the customers don’t wear condoms, even though I try to persuade them,” explains one young prostitute. “There’s nothing I can do because by that time I’ve already taken my clothes off, and the time is going by, and I’m worried that the customer won’t finish within 15 minutes, then I’ll get into trouble with my ‘laoban’.”

Many sex workers also reported to have slept with drug users – many taking “yaba” or methamphetamine, which can make clients aggressive and violent. Some women report using the drug themselves to stay awake, making them more vulnerable to abuse and HIV-transmission.

Ruili has seen an estimated tenfold increase in the number of migrants from Burma since 2006, with numbers now exceeding 100,000. A steady stream of workers continues to filter across the border, in spite of Burma’s domestic reform programme.

Many are fleeing ethnic strife and economic hardship in the hopes of a better life in China’s booming economy. But the vast majority want to return.

“When our country’s situation becomes better and the government changes, I want to return to live in my own country,” says one migrant hopefully.

“I was about to return, but I heard that the situation in my village was dangerous and there were so many soldiers. So I didn’t go back,” says another.

The continued violence in Kachin state, near the Chinese border, is likely to displace more Burmese men and women. BWO are also concerned that the growing number of natural resource deals being made by the government is likely to force more people to migrate.

“The key factors which have been driving migration in the past, namely economic collapse due to military mismanagement, conflict and loss of livelihoods not only remain in place but are set to worsen, threatening to increase the rate of migration exponentially,” says the report.

BWO are calling for the Chinese government to take urgent steps to improve the working conditions of Burmese migrants, including the provision of work permits that guarantees equal treatment under the law.

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