Thousands of Burmese Workers Stranded in Myawaddy

By Lawi Weng 11 February 2013

RANGOON — Thousands of job-seekers from all over Burma have seen their hopes of finding work in neighboring Thailand dissolve as agents fail to follow through on promises of employment, leaving many to languish in the border town of Myawaddy as they try to decide their next move.

According to the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), a group that assists Burmese workers in Thailand, around 10,000 would-be employees have been stranded in Myawaddy over the past three months after paying high fees to agents in exchange for guaranteed jobs across the border.

While some of the workers—many of whom hail from as far afield as Magwe Division and Arakan State—have been provided temporary accommodation by the brokers who brought them to the town, many others have been forced to seek shelter in local monasteries, says MRWN.

“The current situation began around two or three months ago, when they were transported to Myawaddy by local brokers,” said Sein Htay, a consultant for MRWN. “They paid a lot of money to get this far, and they’re afraid their money will be lost forever if they leave, so that’s why they stay.”

Some of the workers can’t even afford to feed themselves, said Sein Htay, adding that many sold all their property or took out high-interest loans to finance their quest for gainful employment in more prosperous Thailand.

It was unclear why so many workers have failed to find jobs in Thailand, which is host to an estimated two million migrant workers from Burma, most of them unregistered. The owner of one recruitment company, however, blamed the situation at least in part on security issues in Thailand, particularly in the country’s far south.

“We can’t send our workers there because of the fighting between Thai troops and militants,” he said, referring to an insurgency by Muslim separatists in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces that has claimed more than 5,000 lives over the past nine years.

Another problem, he said, is that sometimes Thai employers cancel contracts for foreign laborers without warning.

There are more than 50 legally registered recruitment companies in Burma, offering jobs in Thailand and other countries around the region. Although the official price for providing employment-related services is 110,000 kyat (US $127), many companies charge double this amount or more, according to MWRN.

Aung Htay Win, the director of the Labor Ministry’s Department of Employment, told The Irrawaddy that the ministry can take action against companies that charge more than the fixed rate if workers file complaints.

“If the workers come to us with complaints, we can do something about this abuse of their rights,” he said. Regarding the situation of the workers stranded in Myawaddy, however, he said he hadn’t heard anything about this problem.

Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, the labor attache at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, also told The Irrawaddy that he wasn’t aware of the problem.

According to MRWN, the solution to rampant abuses of the system for sending Burmese workers abroad is for the government to become more directly involved in the process, which currently has limited government oversight.

The government should also do more to educate workers before they are sent to Thailand or other countries, to teach them about their legal rights if they are cheated by brokers or foreign employers.

“Our country doesn’t have a proper system to deal with contracting labor to companies in other countries,” said Sein Htay. It is the responsibility of both recruitment companies and the government to implement such a system, he said.

After many years of leaving migrant workers entirely to their own devices, however, the Burmese government has more recently begun to address some of the issues facing workers forced to seek employment abroad.

On Friday, Deputy Labor Minister Myint Thein visited Bangkok to assess the progress of the Burmese government’s nationality verification process, which is part of a system for allowing Burmese citizens to live and work legally in Thailand.

Myint Thein said he was hopeful the Thai government would extend its deadline for completion of the national verification process beyond its current date of March 16. The previous deadline was Dec. 14, when the Thai government threatened to deport hundreds of thousands of workers who hadn’t registered.