Burmese Migrants Cite Safety Concerns Amid Crackdown by Thai Junta

By Saw Yan Naing 25 June 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — As the Thai junta reforms its labor policy and cracks down on illegal migrant workers, Burmese migrants in the construction and fishing industries, including those with legal rights to work in the country, are reporting mistreatment by their employers and the police.

Poe Thein, a Burmese construction worker in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, said he and 80 other migrants were arrested in early June and detained for several weeks before being deported back to the Burmese border town of Tachileik, across from the Thai town of Mae Sai.

The construction worker said he and three of his Burmese coworkers possessed proper documentation to legally work in Thailand.

“When the police raided our place, we told them we had documents. We gave them the documents,” he said. “But when they called our employer, he refused to confirm our employment. He didn’t do anything to help us, and the police said our passports were no longer valid so we were arrested and detained for weeks.”

He accused the Thai police of seizing the Burmese identity cards of some migrant workers when they were driven in trucks to Tachileik.

More than 200,000 foreign migrant workers, mostly from Cambodia, have been deported from Thailand since a Thai military coup on May 22. The deportations are part of a crackdown on illegal migrant workers to combat corruption and human trafficking.

Now, Thai labor authorities say deported migrant workers can return to the country and apply for permission to work again, according to Thai media reports. The junta is even setting up one-stop service centers near the Thai-Cambodia border to register migrant workers, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported.

But returning to Thailand has not gone smoothly for some.

“I tried to cross the border this morning with an official permit, but Thai authorities stopped me,” Poe Thein said. “I don’t know why I can’t come to Thailand, even with a legal document.”

Kyaw Thaung, director of the Bangkok-based Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT), a labor rights group that helps Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, said he doubted Burmese authorities were cooperating with Thai authorities to assist workers.

He said a group of 14 Burmese migrant workers in the migrant-populated town of Mahachai recently attempted to return to Burma because they had not been paid well. But the migrants were forced to stay in Thailand because the employers refused to give back their passports.

“The migrant workers went to seek help from the Burmese embassy in Bangkok to regain their passports, but the embassy did not take any effective responsibility,” said Kyaw Thaung.

“They [Burmese authorities] are good at talking. But, there is no effective action.”

Thailand’s Labor Ministry has encouraged migrant workers to report poor treatment by employers, including unfair pay, according to the Bangkok Post. Ministry officials warned more than 200 job agencies that they would take legal action against anyone who paid unfair wages to migrant workers, the newspaper reported.

There are 2.2 million registered migrant workers in Thailand, mostly Burmese migrants. Labor rights groups estimate that there are an additional 3 million undocumented Burmese migrant workers in the country. Many of them are exploited.

The London-based Guardian newspaper recently released an investigative documentary that spotlighted the plight of Burmese male workers who were sold like slaves by human trafficking agents to work on Thai fishing boats against their will. The newspaper said supermarkets around the world buy seafood that comes from this “slavery-style” work.

The Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum is calling on major Western food retailing companies to put pressure on businesses in Thailand after The Guardian linked a major Thai conglomerate, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, with trafficking and slave labor involving Burmese migrants.