Burmese Migrant Workers’ Group Receives International Award

By Nyein Nyein 23 May 2013

A Burmese migrant labor activist group has been honored with the International Labor Rights Award for its contribution to the labor rights movement and exposing work-related rights violations.

The International Labor Rights Forum on Wednesday jointly honored the Burmese Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), which is based in Bangkok, and Thailand’s State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) for their “groundbreaking” work in defending migrant workers in Thailand.

In a statement released by the US-based ILRF, Executive Director Judy Gearhart said “MWRN is on its way to becoming a globally recognized representative of migrant workers on issues relating to trafficking, forced labor and other labor rights abuses in Thailand.

“We are committed to standing with MWRN and supporting the organization’s work in the future.”

Ko Zaw, a migrant worker and the vice chairman of the MWRN, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the recognition was testament to “the grassroots migrant workers who gathered to work together against injustice faced by migrant peers.”

The head of the group, Aung Kyaw, and adviser Sein Htay received the award in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

The MWRN, formed four years ago by Burmese migrant laborers working in Thailand’s seafood processing sector, addresses issues related to labor rights violations and human trafficking.

Most of its approximately 700 members work in Bangkok’s Mahachai area.

Migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos officially make up about 10 percent of Thailand’s workforce, but many more migrants are trafficked or exploited in other ways.

The countries’ leaders have introduced a national verification process to reduce illegal hiring and the labor exploitation that often comes with undocumented employment.

But that process has failed to help migrant workers, said Ko Zaw, as migrants who apply for the necessary legal documents, including a temporary passport and work permit, still must pay large fees to agents.

Labor activist groups claim that Burmese migrants are being extorted for those documents despite the fact that the Burmese government has since 2009 provided a way to obtain documents allowing them to work legally outside the country.

The right groups say migrants often pay more than 10,000 baht ($330) to agents or brokers who promise to expedite the application process for a temporary passport.

According to Moe Gyo, the head of the Joint Action Committee for Burmese Workers Association, the government is paying greater attention to migrant workers’ issues and is considering providing support to migrant workers on matters related to health care, labor rights and remittances. Moe Gyo attended a recent meeting on migrant workers’ issues in Naypyidaw.

He said labor activists and the Burmese government are now working together for the betterment of both legal and illegal migrant workers.

There are an estimated 3 million Burmese migrants employed in Thailand, but only 1.3 million have undergone the national verification process. A total of 900,000 migrants have been issued temporary passports while 400,000 applications are still being processed at one of 11 one-stop service centers across Thailand.

The date for issuance of the 400,000 temporary passports has been pushed back to Aug. 11, after officials initially said the applications would be processed by May.

Moe Gyo said the government would likely continue to work to facilitate the temporary passport application process for the remaining 1.7 million undocumented Burmese migrant workers.