Large-scale commercial building projects in Rangoon are reportedly being delayed by a shortage of skilled labor because Burmese workers still prefer jobs in Thailand.
More than 2 million migrant workers remain in Thailand, where there are frequent reports of abuse and cheating by employers and job agents, and thousands of Burmese also choose to endure poor treatment in Malaysia rather than return home.
Prominent human rights activist Andy Hall told The Irrawaddy the wages overseas remained higher, making up for the other downsides for migrant laborers.
“The wage differential between [Burma] and Thailand and Malaysia is so huge, that’s why people choose to stay on or migrate fresh to Thailand or Malaysia,” said Hall.
Despite a more liberal economy and political system under Burma President Thein Sein than under his predecessor, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, in practice workers’ rights and conditions are no better in Burma than across the border where pay is higher, said Hall, an adviser to the Migrant Worker Rights Network in Rangoon and also the State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation of Thailand.
“As long as workers [abroad] don’t fall into situations of severe debt bondage or trafficking, and even if they had bad employers, they can still usually save and send home more money than they ever could from working in [Burma]. The same is the case for skilled workers. Burma is not offering enough incentives,” Hall said.
Some major hotel developments in Rangoon are way behind schedule, with labor shortages prominent among the reasons, according a report in the Myanmar Times this week.
The 300-room Hilton hotel in the Centrepoint complex in Rangoon, which has been developing at a snail’s pace for years, should have opened in March. The newspaper cited a Hilton official saying a partial opening, with 50 percent of rooms ready, is now planned for the end of this year.
Burma is crying out for more hotel accommodation as it struggles to cope with its biggest boom industry—foreign tourism.
The Thilawa Special Economic Zone planned to be built on the edge of Rangoon has been repeatedly delayed by a string of problems, ranging from land rights issues to infrastructure services such as water and electricity.
And just last month, some of the key Japanese investors in Thilawa voiced concern about a suitable labor force to develop and operate the zone. The Japanese government’s trade promotion agency, JETRO, told a Rangoon conference that developers Mitsubishi Corporation, Sumitomo Corporation and Marubeni Corporation were worried about an adequate electricity supply and sufficient skilled labor.
Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, many of them illegal and therefore subject to mistreatment because they dare not complain, have become skilled in a range of fields from construction to factory machinery operation.
But Thai employers impose extremely long hours without breaks, pay wages below the Thai legal minimum of US$9 per day, and confiscate identity documents to prevent workers leaving.
“It results from systematic failure of the [Thai] government and law enforcement apparatus to take seriously the need to ensure the rights of migrant workers are respected and ensure the rule of law is applied in relation to labor rights issues,” Hall said.
“It also results from the uniform failure of numerous administrations to prioritize the protection of migrants alongside national security and economic necessity. The latter two clearly rule when enacting and enforcing what little migration policy Thailand has.
“It’s completely unrelated to the latest political chaos [in Bangkok since late last year]. The migrant registration system and migration policy has been appallingly inept for almost three decades now.”
Only last week Burmese workers staged a rare strike at a Thai-owned factory in Mae Sot, on the border with Burma, which makes expensive leisure clothes for the German firm Jack Wolfskin. The factory owner was paying only half the legal minimum daily wage.
In southern Thailand also last week, human rights group Finnwatch, for which Hall has previously done research work, accused several factories jointly owned by Austrian company Semperit of breaking Thai law by paying below minimum wages, forced long hours, and employment of Burmese children.
The Siam Sempermed factories produce hospital medical gloves for Semperit, one of the world’s leading distributors.
“Workers’ ID cards are confiscated by supervisors who keep them until production targets are met,” said Finnwatch executive director Sonja Vartiala in a 16-page report “Caring for Hands, not Workers.”
Semperit said in a statement the factories are operated by its Thai partners, but said it had found no evidence of abuse or employment of Burmese child labor.
“One key issue is systematic failure of audits. The auditing system of international or global companies is completely insufficient and unable to capture the reality of work conditions on the ground in Thailand, particularly when migrants are involved,” Hall explained.
“Proper translation for auditors is lacking [and] almost all workers will not tell the truth [about working conditions] to outsiders within factory grounds. It’s only through independent and thorough consumer research like that which I and other groups do that real conditions can be revealed.
“Overseas importers of goods from Thailand however should know—and most almost always do—the conditions and lack of law enforcement and rule of law in labor affairs in Thailand by now. There are still many international companies that like what Thailand can offer in terms of cheap and compliant labor, particularly migrants, and relatively good infrastructure, so they choose to be based here knowing full well the conditions.”