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Thailand: Life for a female Burmese economic migrant
19 January 2011

Factory workers, seeking asylum from Burma, leave their eight-hour shifts where they make 206 baht a day.
“In many cases these people are sold into prostitution, to the fishing boats and to farms. It is the brokers that sell labourers to factories and girls to brothels.”
Bangkok, 19 January, 2011 – Kyaw never expected to be a father.

“The mother was raped by a Burmese broker who promised her a job in a factory,” he explained. “He locked her up, raped her and she became pregnant. When her belly became visible she lost her job as a housemaid.”

“It’s not that she doesn’t like the baby but she just can’t survive,” he said. “She said ‘you can give the baby to anyone... if you cannot find anyone I will have to leave her.’ So I kept the baby. It is a girl. Her name is Nan Yuhlai.”

This mother is just one of an estimated two million Burmese migrant workers who travel to Thailand in a frantic search for work. The journey is often hazardous. At the mercy of traffickers, young girls are subjected to sexual assault or rape.

“In many cases these people are sold into prostitution, to the fishing boats and to farms. It is the brokers that sell labourers to factories and girls to brothels,” he said.

If women make it, their destination is one of Bangkok’s sprawling industrial estates, like the district called Bangkhuntian where there are around 10,000 migrant workers who produce everything from steel spoons to canned fish, making 206 baht ($6.80 USD) a day.  At least half are without work permits and are considered illegal by Thai authorities.

Surviving in Bangkok

Everyday at 5 p.m. hundreds of young women, their faces pale from hours indoors, pour out of crumbling grey factories. Their eyes squint as they emerge from the damp darkness into the oppressive humidity. After a short walk home they re-enter the darkness of ageing apartment blocks crammed with 800 other migrant workers from Burma. For women with children, there is little time to rest after work.

“The women do almost exactly the same work physically as the men, and then go home to take care of their baby,” explains Hla Win, a volunteer at a day care centre run by Burmese migrants.

While pregnant women are often given less dangerous work, serious accidents in the factories are common due to ageing machinery and insufficient health and safety standards. “The machines are old and breakdown and limbs are injured because of the poor maintenance,” explained Khaing.

“Sometimes there are no gloves or helmets. There is no ventilation and the Thai supervisor won’t install fans,” Hla Win said, a volunteer at a day care centre run by Burmese migrants.

Injured workers rarely receive proper medical treatment and without work permits or money are prevented from accessing hospitals.

“If they are injured, they are sent to the factory clinic rather than a hospital. All it is is an office with some aspirin and bandages and someone acting as a nurse,” she added.

Female migrant workers are often unable to find the money or papers to leave; factory owners who fear losing their cheap labour refuse to issue employment termination letters, which are needed to find another job.

In an attempt to address some of these issues the Ministry of Labour is considering re-opening its national verification scheme in early 2011. This will provide the first opportunity since 2008 for migrants to register with the authorities and apply for a work permit. However, the cost and lack of documentation means that legal status is out of reach for many.

JRS has assisted migrant workers from Burma through the provision of seedling funding to a small community centre which supports refugees and migrant workers.

The funds were used to buy rice and phone cards, which are sold to cover the costs of running the centre. The community centre also provides child care for women and a temporary shelter to a small number of migrants who are sick or cannot find work.

Despite the tough conditions in Thailand, many migrants feel they are better off.

“At least here you can work and fill your belly. If you have a job at least you can eat daily. It Burma there is nothing,” Khaing said.

*name changed for protection

Oliver White, regional advocacy communications officer, JRS Asia Pacific

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