When the moon reaches its fullest in the coastal town of Ranong in southern Thailand, ships dock under the watch of the port-in port-out (PIPO) authorities — investigators appointed in 2015 to quell trafficking on the busy seaside.
But four months ago, when Moe Tha Hlay’s boat docked off schedule carrying a dead fisherman, inspectors paid scant attention.
“In these situations, PIPO should ask how [migrant workers] died, how they can help the family — questions such as these. I wish they would do something like that, not [only ask about] the life jackets,” he said of their misplaced focus.
This is the second death that Hlay — agreeing to speak under a false name for fear of repercussions from his boat’s owner — has seen at sea in the last four months. Though he endures things that scare him, he dares not change vessels.
“It’s difficult to change [boats], we have no choice. When we change to another fishing boat, we must pay a lot of money from our own pockets. We don’t want to pay [this bond] and that’s what keeps us working aboard the same boat — even if it’s dangerous.”
Most Myanmar migrant workers are indebted, rights groups say
Ten years ago, horrifying reports of extreme debt bondage surfaced from Thailand’s commercial fishing industry, shocking consumers into reconsidering their position on one of Thailand’s leading sectors.
A 2020 endline study of Thailand’s fishing sector by the International Labor Organization found 14% of fishers experienced involuntary work and coercion. But migrant working advocacy organizations estimate that the vast majority of Myanmar migrants working in Thailand’s fisheries or similar trades are indebted and ostensibly bonded to an employer, agency, or broker.
Conditions like these have resurfaced since Myanmar was hit by the pandemic and the coup — a two-year closure of the Thai-Myanmar border has allowed brokers to demand significant upcharges. Aside from the physical risks, migrants now seeking work in Thailand are shouldering a larger economic burden.
A familiar pattern
Hlay and other workers fear things are taking a turn for the worse since the ousting of the semi-civilian government in February 2021. Hlay says the return of the Burmese military could catalyze a rush for jobs, allowing brokers to exploit people desperate for work once more.
“Now, many migrants will face a host of problems in other countries. I see this happening,” he said. “In the past, a lot of fishermen faced physical abuse; now that things have changed, I worry this situation will return.”
In the 17 years Hlay worked on ships, debt has been constant: paying yearly for a new visa, and biannually for a work permit through a broker the boat owner selects.
Brokers chosen freely by owners are prone to adding additional fees, deducted from fishers’ salaries — it can take fishermen years to pay these off. Changing employers (thus transferring the liabilities accumulated) also carries a surcharge — debt.
In the past, Hlay has managed to pay the premium required to change employers, but now his family in Myanmar is in greater need of remittances. At the time of his last transfer, he still owed the boat owner approximately THB 10,000 (€270, $300).
Next month, he’ll be required to pay new documentation fees as his last ship never went back out to sea, leaving him without work. He holds out hope this new debt will be paid off within five months.
“I have a family, so I can’t pay it all at the same time. I’ll tell the owner to deduct it from my monthly salary.”
Forced labor and precarious work
Hlay was never given a contract by his employer. He isn’t sure how much the renewal of his documentation will cost next month and is sometimes paid up to THB 2,000 less than his promised wage, although he is not sure why.
His trawler routinely runs short on food and he sometimes works days in excess of 12 hours, a direct violation of Thailand’s committments under ILO convention C188. As Hlay effectively lacks the freedom to leave his job, it also meets the organization’s definition of forced labor.
But when his ship docks, Hlay’s complaints fall on deaf ears.
“PIPO have Burmese translators, but they don’t do anything. Sometimes, on the boats, there’s not enough food to eat. Even though we talk to them, they fail to address the situation. That’s why I’m so angry,” he said. “… If Burmese [people] die, they don’t care.”
Thai authorities turn blind eye
Thailand’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report last year investigated 14 cases of forced labor, a number widely rejected by migrant worker advocacy groups who cite weak inspection and willful ignorance. Despite requests for comment, the Royal Thai Police Operations Centre, which oversees trafficking prevention, did not respond.
Migrant Working Group representative Adisorn Kerdmongkol found, when studying debt bondage, that up to 90% of workers in sectors such as fishing and domestic work end up paying employers or brokers to arrange documentation and job placements in Thailand.
“It’s not only expensive, but also complex,” he said about the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) process for migrant workers. “You want the chance to make money; [under the MoU] you have to wait three months and work with the government — I think it’s not a choice. If you come illegally, you need a broker.”
Despite the resumption this May of Thailand’s MoU system — which aims to place 150,000 Burmese workers to address the country’s chronic labor shortage — he says the tens of thousands forced across the border by the coup may still opt for irregular routes.
Research conducted in April this year by the Seafood Working Group and the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum found that a brokered journey across the Myawaddy-Mae Sot border costs around THB8,000-10,000 per person.
Joint Action Committee for Burmese Affairs’ Moe Kyaw says two types of brokers work in tandem. After carrying clients from across Myanmar to border regions, other groups of brokers will offer jobs in garment factories, fisheries, and on boats.
The “total package” — a passage to Thailand or Malaysia and a work placement — can cost up to THB30,000.
“People pawn their houses to get loans for money to give to brokers. For those who can’t find the cash, they arrange for agents to take a cut from their own salaries,” he said.
“But you won’t get your money back once you are arrested. Some people have been abandoned in the forest with no food; they may only eat when they encounter Thai authorities.”
‘It’s become the norm’
Mon State farmer Ba Tun couldn’t afford to feed his pigs after Thingyan, Myanmar’s new year festival in April. He thought giving a broker a lump sum of THB 23,000 to get to Thailand would help him start over — a decision he has yet to stop paying for.
“They asked for more money once the journey ended. I’m not satisfied at all,” he said. “Once I pay back the travel expenses, then I would like to go back to Burma and do my old job.”
After crossing the border river by boat, brokers smuggled him to a garment factory job in Samut Sakhorn.
While his sister pays his broker fees back home, Ba Tun covers the THB18,000 demanded for his placement and work permit. Twice a month, bosses slash his salary in half to cover these costs. He’s not sure when he’ll be able to go back home.
Roisai Wongsuban, program advisor for The Freedom Fund, a non-profit working to eliminate modern day slavery, says this perpetual cycle is one of the key indicators of debt slavery; once workers are close to repaying what is demanded, it’s time to renew their documents.
“It’s become the norm in this sector — ‘Oh okay, it’s normal, we have to pay to get a good job. The documentation is because we want to work here, then we have to pay for that. The boss will be the one who chooses the documentation broker, and we can’t complain as it brings no benefit to us,'” she said.
“I think this type of thinking resonates with the workers, so many do not see themselves in a situation of debt bondage — nor do many Thai authorities. When people violate the law it becomes the norm; many authorities have a blind attitude because everyone in the market does it.”