The Irrawaddy

60 Burmese Migrants Freed From Slave-Like Conditions in Thailand: Rights Group

Burmese migrant workers being rescued from prawn processing facility in Mahachai, Thailand. (Photo: Myanmar Association in Thailand)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Scores of workers from Burma were rescued on Tuesday from a shrimp processing facility in Thailand after being locked inside for up to three years, according to a migrant rights group.

The Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT) said one of about 40 workers trapped inside was able to escape from the site, located in Samut Sakhon, a coastal Thai town near Bangkok commonly referred to as Mahachai.

The escapee alerted MAT of the facility’s whereabouts, and they returned with Thai authorities to free the other captive laborers, MAT secretary Khaing Gyi told The Irrawaddy.

“One worker ran away through a back door and got in contact with us. In cooperation with Thai authorities, we raided the facility and rescued all the workers,” Khaing Gyi said.

About 60 people were removed from the site, among them about 40 workers and their family members, he said. The Thai-owned shrimp peeling facility was staffed with workers from Mon and Karen states, as well as Tenasserim Division.

Some of the workers had been working at the site for about seven months, while others claim to have been trapped inside for upwards of three years, long after they had paid back debts owed to middlemen who work as employment brokers.

Win Win Than, a pregnant worker who was among those freed on Tuesday, said she had not been allowed to leave since she arrived at the site two years ago.

“I was never allowed to go out,” she said. “At first the middleman said I had to give him 12,000 baht [US$360], but then he asked me for 20,000 when we got there. He was a Burmese national.”

Win Win Than said she and her coworkers began their shift at 5am each day and worked until about 8pm. The workers said they believed they had been issued legitimate work documents, but that the papers were still in the possession of either the broker or the company owner.

MAT said the migrants earned only 50 to 200 baht per day, well below Thailand’s minimum wage of 300 baht. Because they were unable to leave, they spent much of their earnings on food brought in by the broker at a 50 percent markup.

The broker and the owner of the facility remain at large since the raid, MAT said. The Irrawaddy could not independently verify the allegations.

The US State Department recently estimated that there could be as many as three million migrant laborers in Thailand, though the Thai Ministry of Labor put the number at about one million last year.

Most migrants in Thailand are from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, and less than half have legal documents allowing them to work in the Kingdom with some basic protections.

Many migrants arrive in Thailand with the help of a broker, who receives a fee to transport them across the border and find them legal employment. Brokers often deliver the service as promised, but many migrants find themselves in a position of indefinite exploitation with no avenue of recourse.

Last year, Thailand was designated as a “Tier 3” country in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The downgrade was due in part to human trafficking in the seafood industry and in the country’s south, where recent years have seen a sharp rise in trafficking of people from western Burma and Bangladesh, mostly believed to be stateless Rohingya asylum seekers.