Burmese Workers at Risk from Thai Labor Deal

By William Boot 24 April 2012

“Human rights abuses faced daily by migrant workers include violent attacks and killings by government security forces and private individuals, extensive use of torture and ill-treatment in detention, sexual abuse, widespread labor rights abuses, and pervasive extortion.”

One would be forgive for thinking this damning indictment described the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Syria or Burma.

But no, this comes from a recent report by the respected New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) regarding Thailand—the “land of smiles” destination for millions of Western tourists and where Burma is planning a to “export” 200,000 migrant workers in a controversial new deal.

The Burmese government is negotiating to supply workers to help alleviate high unemployment at home while easing a labor shortage in its eastern neighbor.

Thailand already has up to three million poorly paid migrant workers and most of them are from Burma.

In its report to the UN’s Human Rights Council on June 3, HRW said, “In every region we visited, from the remote provinces on Thailand’s borders to major industrial zones near Bangkok, abuses of migrants were systematic and those filing grievances faced immediate, violent retaliation from a nexus of local police, officials and employers.

“Severe restrictions on migrants’ rights to establish trade unions, to legally organize groups or associations, and to assemble and express views further reinforce the vulnerability of migrants to abuses.”

Some human rights and labor activist groups believe the deal being hatched between the Burmese and Thai labor ministries has more to do with the Bangkok government’s decision to increase the minimum wage for Thai workers than any real labor shortage.

Bizarrely, it also comes as some Thai firms are considering moving their production to Burma to cut costs.

In March, at least six major Thai clothing manufacturers announced that they planned to move their factories to Burma to use cheaper labor there because of the Thai government’s introduction of a higher minimum wage.

The higher wage of 300 baht (US$9.75) a day came into force in Bangkok and some other areas on April 1, and on April 20 Thai Labor Minister Padermchai Sasomsap said it would be extended across the country by the end of this year.

“There isn’t really a labor shortage in Thailand, but there is a shortage of people prepared to work for peanuts,” a human rights activist in Bangkok told The Irrawaddy this weekend.

“The garment industry in Thailand has a history of employing Burmese workers on low pay. Many others work in the construction and fishing industries,” said the activist on condition of anonymity.

“In the present circumstances of continuing abuse of Burmese workers already in Thailand and a possible revival of Burma’s own economy, it’s hard to understand why the Burmese government would go along with this new mass cross-border labor agreement.”

The deal, discussed during a visit to Thailand last week by Burmese Deputy Labor Minister Myint Thein, coincided with rare public protests in Thailand by migrant workers over their conditions and pay.

Workers at a Thai food factory at Kanchanaburi on the border with Burma and a fish processing plant at Songkla in southern Thailand highlighted the continuing misuse of vulnerable labor, as highlighted last June by HRW.

The protesting workers complained about the withholding of wages to pay “fees” as well as the confiscation of passports and other vital documents to prevent employees leaving.

This is being spotlighted even as the Thai government promises the Burmese government that it is establishing a more open, legal registration of migrant workers to ensure fairness and rights. The Thai authorities said last week they were opening five new documentation centers for unregistered migrant workers already in the country.

Thailand is not only the world’s biggest rice exporter, it is a major producer and exporter of seafood, with many products being sold to Western countries, including the US, which have sanctioned Burma for labor abuses but have done nothing about Thailand.

The US radio program Latitudes, sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, recently highlighted the plight of Burmese workers in Thailand’s fishing industry, which supplies the shrimps and tuna popular in the US and elsewhere in the West. It showed how workers end up indebted to Thai employment “brokers” and find themselves working long hours in dangerous conditions.

Broadcaster Jesse Hardman visited the fishing port of Mahachai south of Bangkok which he says has 120,000 Burmese workers and is known locally as “Little Burma.”

“Trafficking Burmese labor is big business in Thailand. Recruiters get Burmese into industries, but along the way the Burmese accumulate debt and have to pay it back in a kind of indentured servitude,” Hardman said.

Many workers in Mahachai are caught up in this sort of racket, which is condoned by police and other law-enforcing agencies, he said.

Burma and Thailand still have to meet again in May to finalize their new cross-border labor plan. The Thai authorities have promised to increase documentation for migrant workers which will supposedly give them better legal status and prevent abuse. However, observers question how likely this is given their track record.

Some NGOs and academic specialists think it will require much more than the opening of documentation centers where Burmese and other migrants workers from Cambodia and Laos can register.

“There’s been systematic corruption, discrimination, exploitation. Migrants are treated like walking ATMs,” Hardman quoted Andy Hall, a migrant labor expert at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, as saying.