RANGOON — Thai and Burmese workers at the Dawei special economic zone (SEZ) are facing unemployment as massive construction projects were this month temporarily suspended.
Projects by the Italian-Thai Development Plc (ITD) were halted at Dawei by the Burma and Thai governments until after a due diligence assessment can be carried out. The suspension came as both governments decided to take control of the SEZ from ITD, which had struggled to raise enough private capital. With the change, other foreign investors will be invited to help develop the strategic complex that is expected to operate as a deep-sea port, petrochemical and heavy industry hub in southeastern Burma.
With ITD potentially swept aside until April next year, when the due diligence assessment is expected to be completed, an estimated 1,200 Burmese workers will be affected, according to labor leaders. The government plans to meet with workers on Saturday to discuss plans moving forward. In the meantime, the deputy minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, Phone Swe, spoke with The Irrawaddy about possible solutions on Monday, on the sidelines of a press conference about the Dawei SEZ in Rangoon.
Question: How will the Burmese government help local workers who recently lost their jobs on ITD projects at the Dawei SEZ?
Answer: I am asking township administration officers in Tanintharyi Region [Tenasserim Division, where Dawei is located] to determine how many workers were involved in this project—a detailed figure—because local workers are facing difficulties. Then I will allow these officers to submit suggestions about what we need to do to help them. Then we will get involved.
Q: If workers came to the Dawei site from other villages, is it true the government will arrange to transport them back home?
A: We must do it, if necessary, because they are Burmese. If they want to search for other employment or continue working there [in Dawei], they may stay. But if they want to go back home, we will discuss in greater detail how we can send them back. Because this problem arose so quickly, we still need to find a solution.
Q: Can you begin to help the Burmese workers before receiving detailed information?
A: We can’t do anything without solid information.
Q: Does the Burma government plan to negotiate the salaries for workers at the Dawei SEZ in the future? Thai workers reportedly earned more than Burmese workers in the past.
A: We will respect their labor rights. They can have equal labor rights in the future.
Q: As you said during the press conference, the number of villages displaced by the SEZ has been decreased, from 16 villages originally to six villages, according to the most recent plans. Have displaced residents already received compensation?
A: We have not yet provided compensation to people in the six affected villages. At previous locations, compensation was provided earlier for 8,000 acres of a total 50,000 acres.
Q: Who will be responsible for providing the rest of the compensation?
A: We still have no idea. Either ITD or SPV-1 [Special Purpose Vehicle-1, a public company organized by the Thai and Burma government for the Dawei SEZ]. If SPV-1 is going to provide compensation, we, the government, will be responsible for some of the compensation. Small light industry projects will also be starting in Dawei, and I do not know whether the groups responsible for those projects will provide compensation phase by phase.
Q: What assurances can the government give to residents from the six villages who have not received compensation yet but will be affected by the SEZ?
A: Most of the land owners own rubber and cashew nut farms. They can continue working as usual before they receive compensation.