Lawmakers Push for Legal Protection for Burmese Migrant Workers

By Tin Htet Paing 28 September 2016

RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House of Parliament on Tuesday discussed a proposal urging the government to enact legal protection against labor exploitation and abuse of Burmese migrant workers in foreign countries.

The proposal was submitted by the ruling National League for Democracy party lawmaker U Kyaw Aung Lwin of Magwe Division’s Sidoktaya Township. He said past governments had failed to address the situation of Burmese migrant workers abroad and that now the civilian-elected government was responsible for imposing regulations regarding their rights.

Unable to find adequate employment at home and tempted by promises of higher wages in more developed countries, Burmese migrants typically obtain jobs as laborers in factories, on construction sites, and as domestic workers in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai, he said.

He added that the main drivers of the migration are a significant rise in unemployment, low wages and poverty. Many still use illegal migration channels to avoid the higher costs associated with bilateral labor agreements, rendering them prone to the extortionate practices of employment brokers and employers.

While workers under legal conditions also face mistreatment and abuse, illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, human rights abuses and even death, due in part to a lack of legal protection.

“Although Burmese migrants include educated workers, many are employed in poorly regulated and hazardous sectors—‘3 Ds’ workplaces: dirty, dangerous and difficult environments—in which host citizens are unwilling to work,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Lawmaker Daw Khin Sandy from Tenasserim Division’s Launglon Township said during the legislative session that many young people from her constituency left for Thailand hoping for better wages but instead faced exploitation, rights abuses, limitation of movement, human trafficking and slavery—the worst cases in the offshore fishing industry and lucrative tourism sector.

“Full pay for labor, safe and sound working environments, and legal protection are essential for our migrant workers,” she said, citing the importance of representation, the responsibility of Burmese embassies in countries where migrants live and the need for an allocated national budget to aid migrant workers.

According to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), about 10 percent of Burmese nationals migrate internationally. The Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population cites the official figure of migrant workers abroad at 470,000. But a source at the ministry said the official number only counts those who go through legal means, and that the actual number of migrant workers living abroad is much higher—closer to the IOM figure, including more than 3 million in Thailand and Malaysia.

In late June, State Counselor and foreign affairs minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand and pledged to collaborate with the Thai government to offer protection under new agreements signed between the two countries.

She said during a bilateral meeting, “I recognize that we in [Burma] are responsible for our people here. We will never neglect them.”

Lawmakers will continue to discuss U Kyaw Aung Lwin’s proposal on Wednesday, Speaker Win Myint said in Parliament.