In Person

Migrant Rights Activist: Booming Thai Border Town ‘Built on Burmese Sweat’

By Saw Yan Naing 1 May 2017

MAE SOT, Thailand — Mae Sot, a border town in western Thailand, has changed starkly in the past few years. Once quiet, the town now has shopping malls, hotels, an airport, a new bridge, and construction projects widening its main road.

The graft of Burmese labor workers contributes greatly to the town’s development. U Moe Joe, a longtime Burmese migrant rights activist and the chairman of Mae Sot-based Joint Action Committee for Burma Affairs (JACBA), has been supporting Burmese workers in the town for 14 years.

Senior reporter Saw Yan Naing interviews U Moe Joe about his views on the growth of Mae Sot and its consequences for migrant workers.

How do you see the expansion of Mae Sot?

There are huge expansion projects in Mae Sot, including an airport, shopping malls, supermarkets, government offices, buildings, and a hospital. These all benefit the Thai people, but many Burmese migrant workers who work in construction don’t receive proper wages.

Many workers on Robinson [a shopping mall named for its primary department store] still haven’t received their wages and we heard that migrants who helped construct the airport didn’t get full wages. The workers were supposed to be paid 300 Thai baht (US$8.5) a day but some received 160-250 baht ($4.5-7.2). There’s still exploitation—it’s one of the results of expansion in Mae Sot, but Burmese migrant workers should also benefit. Every construction project has problems paying the migrant workers.

Have you noticed many Burmese migrant workers returning home now that their country is opening?

Some Burmese workers are going back to live in Burma now the NLD [National League for Democracy] has come to power, but we don’t know the official figure. Some permanently move back and others go back and forth. Garment factory workers, who do well back in Burma, often go back but it doesn’t work out so well for those in construction and agriculture. They come to Thailand after they don’t find work in Burma.

Numbers of Burmese people still come to Thailand for work but we don’t have the statistics because many of them cross into Thailand illegally. Migrant workers visiting their homes have brought back friends in the past but we don’t see that now. The number of newcomers is decreasing.

What about the abuse and exploitation of Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot compared to the past? 

Employers used to solve their problems with employees in a criminal way and the migrant workers always lost, but now the Thai government is working on upgrading standards, especially for child workers and forced laborers.

The government fines employers but in no case has the employer been jailed. It’s common for employees to be jailed, so there are many things that need improving. Guilty employers should also been jailed yet, for now, they pay the fine and are free.

Why do Burmese people still go to work in Thailand? 

There are still problems with the wages in Burma, although it’s improving under the new civilian government compared to the previous regime. Workers in Burma do not get paid the same rate as those in Thailand, which is why they still come.

When did Mae Sot begin to expand? 

Mae Sot is a town in Tak Province where all the government offices are based. It has a lot of factories—180 registered factories by our estimate. So migrant workers go to Mae Sot. Within the last five years, government offices, departments, privately owned buildings and hotels have sprung up. All the construction on those buildings was built with the labor of Burmese migrant workers. They work in the heat. They built them with their sweat.