For Burmese Migrants, Labor Ministry Urges Due Diligence

By Yen Saning 6 February 2014

RANGOON — The Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security has published an announcement in state newspapers advising Burmese workers seeking employment abroad to verify the credibility of overseas employment agencies with the ministry before committing to job offers beyond Burma’s borders.

The notice says laborers can cross-check the existence of the agencies and authenticity of letters of employment through the ministry’s website or by making a phone call to the Migrant Workers Division of the Employment Department. However, attempts by The Irrawaddy to call the two phone numbers listed in the notice went unanswered, and the website could not be accessed on Thursday.

“It’s good that [the ministry] has started this system,” said Tun Tun Lwin, an education coordinator from the Thailand-based Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN).

“We can know who has recruited [the laborers], from which agency and whether they are an existing agency or an agency that has already been dissolved. If something happens [to a laborer], we can discuss directly with the agency,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Migrant laborers from developing countries are often subject to abuse by employers and scams by unscrupulous employment agencies who take advantage of what the workers see as an opportunity to better their livelihoods by moving abroad.

The ministry urged prospective migrant workers to draft a contract with their employer, and gather information on the place they plan to be sent, along with workplace conditions, ahead of committing to any job abroad. The announcement on Thursday added that Burmese migrant laborers would have to apply for and obtain a work permit from the government of the respective country in which they are seeking employment.

Tun Tun Lwin, whose MWRN also has an office in Rangoon, said Thailand is off-limits to new migrant worker arrivals at the moment. Licensed employment agencies are not taking new applicants because of political turmoil that has plagued Burma’s neighbor to the east since November.

“Recently [last week], about 30-40 people who illegally crossed the border to work have run into problems. The existing laborers aren’t even able to get visa extensions. It is not possible for new arrivals to obtain work permits,” he said.

An estimated 3 million Burmese migrant workers are currently employed in Thailand. About 2 million of the total population are officially registered, and many of these workers arrived in Thailand on a four-year visa program that began in 2009.

“The [Burmese] officials told us that discussions to extend visas for workers can start only when the political situation in Thailand stabilizes,” Tun Tun Lwin said.

According to the Labor Ministry, there are 184 overseas employment agencies in Burma that are officially licensed to recruit workers for jobs abroad. Burma currently has labor attachés assigned to three countries—Thailand, the Republic of Korea and Malaysia—to protect and facilitate opportunities for Burmese migrant workers.

Burmese laborers in Thailand, many of whom are holding expired visas or will otherwise see their visas lapse in the coming weeks and months, are not yet facing the kind of mass arrest operations frequently conducted in Malaysia to crackdown on overstayers. Nonetheless, they are being fined or are subject to extortion by police when they are found to have overstayed, Tun Tun Lwin said.

“There have been no official arrests, but when Thai police find out that a visa has expired, they [migrant workers] are asked whether they will go back home [to Burma] and if not, they are fined anywhere from 500 baht [US$15] to 1,500 baht,” he said.

“The Thai government is doing this. Since high-ranking officials from the two countries have already discussed it, they could tell the Ministry of Home Affairs to instruct police not to arrest the laborers.”