The Struggle Continues for Myanmar Migrants in Thailand

By Nyein Nyein 2 May 2019

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—Myanmar migrant workers and advocacy groups in Thailand have called for their rights to minimum wages, safety at work, better accesses to social security and smoother work permit and visa extension application processes on International Labor Day, or May Day.

While many migrant workers participated in the May Day march in Phang-nga, southern Thailand, dozens more gathered for a discussion event on Wednesday in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, alongside migrant rights advocates and experts, to share their experiences with the Thai government authorities.

Nang Mya, a Myanmar housemaid working in Chiang Mai, said she doesn’t get paid a full minimum wage despite working for eight hours a day.

“I want to earn the daily minimum wage (320 Thai baht in Chiang Mai), but I get 300 baht per day. When I asked my employer [about it], they said they could only give that amount,” she said, adding that even though her pay doesn’t meet the minimum, her job here earns her more than she earned in Myanmar.

Ko Latt, who works at a shop which sells Buddhist shrines said that even though he earns above the minimum wage, he doesn’t receive payment for overtime.

“I have been working in Thailand for six years and I do not get days off for public holidays. If I take leave on those days, I do not get paid. And there is no payment for extra hours after eight hours a day. There is no lunch break either. The accommodation is bad too. If I get sick, the employer would not care and there are no labor rights,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Other difficulties faced by migrant workers from Myanmar are higher costs for visa extensions, for obtaining official documents and social security issues, said Pi Thong Khan, adviser in migrant affairs at the Migrant Assistant Program (MAP) based in Chiang Mai.

“They (migrant workers) are worried about what to do when their visas expire next year,” she said, saying the window during which migrants must renew their visas is between just 20 and 30 days. Additionally, an inadequate number of one-stop government service centers has led to the centers being packed with thousands of migrants which created more opportunities for brokers to exploit migrants.

To tackle illegal migration and to reduce issues with undocumented migrants, the Thai and Myanmar governments signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2009 and since then have introduced a number of schemes to improve the documentation process for those working in Thailand unofficially.

Many Myanmar migrants who had been working in Thailand for decades were unable to travel from one province to another until the government began issuing temporary Myanmar passports in 2009. Then, in 2013, there was a renewed push for migrants in Thailand to apply for regular passports which are valid for five years. To obtain these passports, however, all have to go through a national verification process to prove that they are Myanmar citizens, and to do this they must have national identification cards and household registration documents. And these are hard to come by.

“The passport should be one that migrants can use for a long time, and the cost should be reduced,” Pi Thong Khan said, referring to the additional broker fees which migrant workers often have to pay in order to get the help of agents to overcome the complicated application processes.

“We don’t want to have to go through brokers, as [we] have to pay them more fees than the normal costs,” she added.

Despite these difficulties, as of September 2018 there are over 2.2 million people  Myanmar workers officially registered in Thailand. Myanmar workers make up the highest number of foreign workers followed at some distance by Cambodia (more than 820,000 workers) and Laos (nearly 300,000) who are registered.

Among the 2.2 million workers, those with certificates of identification make up more than one million. Those whose visas will expire in March 2020 are more than 777,000.

Labor rights groups estimate there could be tens of thousands more undocumented, particularly in the agriculture sector, construction and seasonal industries.

Jai Han, a construction worker who has been working in Thailand for 10 years said it would be good if “the Myanmar government could help migrant workers who hold certificates of identity to get official passports with the help of the embassy instead of [them having to go] back to Myanmar.”

He also requested for the Thai government “to help migrants access safe working environments, to allow visa extensions for their dependents and to give migrant better work opportunities and not restrict them.”

Although there are demands from migrant workers for better labor rights and from labor advocates for better government policies, the visa and passport processes are the same as ever, according to U Htoo Chit, director of the Foundation for Education Development, based in Phang-nga, southern Thailand.

He said he has seen many more Thai employers encourage their employees to obtain the official documents compared to previous decades, but that the government has not yet provided policies to smoothen processes for migrant workers.

Since the 2009 MOU process was introduced, many more in the fishery sector—considered the most exploited sector employing migrants—have become legal. There are now more than 20,000 official laborers working in Thai waters, he added. Last year, the Thai and Myanmar governments agreed to increase employment efforts aiming to hire more than 42,000 workers.

“We explained to the workers that having certificates of identity and going through national verification is good for them, but many of them could not afford the high cost [compared to their wages],” he said.

He added that for those who have had to leave their homes in Myanmar due to civil war and those who are not members of the indigenous ethnic groups, like Gurkhas and Muslims, the troublesome verification processes continue to hamper their efforts in obtaining the necessary official documents.