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Out of Work, Out of Options: Myanmar Migrant Workers in Thailand Scrape By During COVID-19

Jittrapon Kaicome The Irrawaddy

With the decline in the Thai and worldwide economy, businesses and factories have closed and migrant workers have been among the first people laid off. As Thailand has entered the worst economic recession in its history, migrants who normally work for daily wages are facing tough times.

After Thailand announced an Emergency Decree to control the outbreak of COVID-19 in late March, the country closed its borders, leaving millions of migrant workers stranded in the country. Some workers were later able to head back across into Myanmar but many are still in Thailand, trapped without jobs and few options to help them get by. Myanmar migrant workers in northern Thailand are among them.

These workers are also faced with the challenge of overcoming local language barriers. Many lack the technical and computer skills to access useful information and guidance or support. They have limited rights to access government social welfare schemes, including those intended to help people through the coronavirus crisis. Their lives hang on uncertainties.

Along the Thailand-Myanmar border in Tak Province, villages went into lockdown and the crisis forced migrant workers from Myanmar to abandon their farms, becoming largely dependent on food handouts. They said the amount of rice handed out wasn’t enough to feed them, lasting only around three days.

“The villagers have come to buy sacks of rice on credit five times already, and it will take at least a year for them to pay back the installments,” said migrant worker Cho Zin Win, 26 years old.

In the city of Chiang Mai during lockdown, it became a common sight to see people, a mixture of local people and migrant workers, lining up for food handouts.

A visit to one of the construction camps in Chiang Mai showed that business closures have forced the wives of construction workers out of their jobs as housekeepers at hotels, while only a few of their husbands have been hired. Some families have less than 1,000 baht left (US$32.08), but they still have to bear the burden of expenses and debts.

Kham Kheng Wong-Ong, 27 years old, is a Shan migrant working as a housekeeper in Chiang Mai. Speaking in tears, she said, “Since my workplace was closed, I don’t have much money left, I don’t know where to find work. I live in a construction camp with my 4-year-old son. My husband is a daily wage construction worker. We don’t even know when he will be laid off. We have to bear the burden of all the expenses such as electricity, school fees, food and also medicine.”

By July, restrictions on businesses were lifted and most businesses reopened. But with the economic collapse brought by the coronavirus crisis, businesses are still unable to hire back many of their workers. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the country—if not more—are still unemployed and many are unable to adapt to the economy’s “new normal.”