In Thailand, there are almost two million migrant workers, around eighty percent of them being Burmese. Many of the Burmese workers came in the eighties and nineties as Thailand experienced an economic boom having an average wage increase of eight percent per year. This was because the migrant workers would take up the jobs that many Thai people would not such as manufacturing and hard agricultural work. Many leave in the face of almost certain poverty for the chance of a better life. Upon arrival in Thailand, however, they face discrimination and human rights abuses daily, both from their employers and from the authorities that are supposed to be protecting them.
Migrant workers arrive in Thailand with the hopes of living a better life than the one that they left behind. Those hopes are often shattered in a concise time. Migrant workers are effectively tied to their employers, they are not able to find other work, and their company holds all their ‘legal’ paperwork. Not only this but authorities such as the police, military and even the immigration services that are supposed to be helping often abuse them, extorting them for money, threaten to kill them and can detain them without fear of reprisal. Common crime is another common factor which migrant workers fall victim to as they have few other that they can turn to with the authorities often looking the other way and are unwilling to help the workers. Numerous Inter-governmental organisations(IGO) have condemned Thailand’s discrimination and failure to protect its migrant worker population. This will be a paper to show what form of discrimination that the migrant workers in Thailand face as well as what discourse is used to justify their marginalised status as well as put forward suggestions of where NGOs and other organisations could intervene.
Why Thailand has so many Burmese migrant workers
As was mentioned previously the majority of migrant workers arrive in Thailand with dreams of a better future for them and their families. In the case of the Burmese migrant workers, it is due closely to Thailand’s economic boom in the 1990s when the average salary was steadily increasing at eight percent per annum.(Arnold 2005).The reason that workers from Burma were so ready to come to Thailand was also the relatively lax borders and immigration at that time due to the ‘constructive agreement’ enacted by the Chatichai Choonhavan government. Streams of migrant workers from Burma began pouring into the Thailand. They started taking the manual jobs that the Thai people of the time detested such as agriculture, factory and domestic work. Thailand then began to rely on these workers, and they would do workers that locals refused to and were needed more than every especially during the time of the Asian economic crisis. With this reliance came more workers as many were escaping the violent repression during the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, and on-going military offensives by the ruling military regime against ethnic nationalities, hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and continue to flee across the border to Thailand. All workers who arrived in Thailand travelled without any documentation, leaving their own country illegally and also entering Thailand illegally.(Pollock 2006).Gender is another factor which comes into play which forces many women to leave Burma. There is little opportunity for females to have quality education in Burma, forcing them to take low-skilled labour work when they can. There is a great deal of sexual violence in Burma that women wish to escape, most notably in the Shan state.Migrant workers have the potential to make a considerable amount of money in Thailand in comparison to what they could make back home in Burma. They then make what they can and send it back to their families in Burma. Even though these jobs are often over ten hours a day, manual labour jobs seven days a week in terrible conditions; they come from extreme poverty in Burma and is their only possibility to make money (Rohan Radheya 2014).According to Grant: ” The more illegal a migrant, the greater is the danger of the journey, or of being exploited, or even enslaved by the trafficker or unscrupulous employers:.(Grant 2005)
Discrimination and human rights abuses faced by migrant workers in Thailand
Sometimes Burmese workers’ pay for their position to work in Thailand from Burma. Sometimes the employers from Thailand can pay an agent to find employees for them. Either way, the migrant worker is liable to face debt as the cost of coming to Thailand, and their position amounts to several months wages. This doubled with extreme interest keep the workers crippled, unable to leave and no one to lend aid as they cannot go to the authorities. Police can do as they will and have little fear that anything will happen to them. A witness told Human Rights Watch how two policemen kicked a Burmese boy to death. They spoke to him, but he did not and could not reply to them in Thai:
“Many Burmese were watching, and nobody went and helped because all of the people were afraid of that police, so nobody said anything about this killing, and nobody informed the police station,” said the witness. “When I saw this [killing], I felt that we Burmese people always have to be humble and have to be afraid of the Thai police. I feel that there is no security for our Burmese people [in Thailand] or for myself.”(HRW 2010)
The employers hold the worker’s papers if the worker has them at all. This means that they cannot approach authorities even if they were willing to take the risk, as they have no papers to prove their eligibility in Thailand. This also counts for all forms of healthcare and other institutions that they cannot have access to freely. In Thailand citizens currently pay thirty baht per month for their healthcare, and they are covered.Migrant workers, however, do not have this luxury however and if an accident should befall them in their poor working conditions, then there is no way to receive medical attention without getting further and even deeper into debt.Having little money and unable to find little in the way of medical treatment many workers find themselves with some long-lasting injuries or diseases; from broken hands that never healed properly to cancer and most notably HIV/AIDs. A number of aid projects have been put in place to help migrants with the HIV/AIDs problem such as The Prevention of HIV/AIDS among Migrant Workers in Thailand Program known as “PHAMIT,” was funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) with the aim to reduce new HIV infection among migrant workers in Thailand. The program started in 2003 and ended in 2008. Migrants reported constant fear of extortion by the police, who demand money or valuables from migrants held in police custody in exchange for their release. It is not uncommon for a migrant to lose the equivalent of one to several months’ pay in one extortion incident..(HRW 2010).Migrant workers in Thailand are severely prohibited in their movement and from any form of trade unions or peaceful assemblies. They would immediately be shut down and arrested. Workers must stay in designated zones and not leave them; they risk being detained by authorities and further trouble with their employers. In some cases when workers are held by police, they are unable to pay the ridiculous fees demanded of them. The police then may ask their work friends, and if they do not have the money, they may have to ask their family member back in Burma. The very people that the workers came to Thailand to try and make money for to send back to them. Sex workers are routinely trafficked in and are often young, knowing little about where they are going. Sometimes even being sold by their own family members.
“All the other girls were crying all the time, but I just kept quiet because I thought to myself that if I cry they can kill me and if I don’t cry they can also kill me, so why should I cry? So I just prepared my heart to face whatever was going to happen, because I did not want to cry. I thought I was going to die.”
(Bee Komjamwong, 2008)
Workers also face conflict and abuse from other rival migrant worker groups such as Cambodian with registered work permits.They often abuse the Burmese workers as they are seen as below them.( Zaw Naing 2010). To be legally employed in Thailand, migrants need three documents from Thai authorities: a labour card, a medical treatment card and a certificate from the immigration bureau. These are issued a certificate provided by the employer. In practice, migrants pay about 20,000 baht (600 dollars) each to brokers to arrange these documents. ( Zaw Naing 2010)It is not impossible for workers to change their status from illegal to legal workers it is however extremely difficult.Due to the restriction’s set on them, they can do little to save the vast sums of money needed to achieve legal status. Workers are severely limited in their movements with not being able to drive their own vehicles or even their employers.They are not allowed to travel without written permission given by the department of employment. This then leaves them at the mercy of Thai teenage gangs who may rob and beat them. Many police recruit migrant workers and recruit them as gang members to work on their behalf; this appeals to many workers as they are then under the protection of the police and if there are fights between the migrants which there often is the police will take their side. The worker then must act as a more mediate between the two factions when workers are imprisoned and such. The more they know however makes their position more precarious as they find out more their life gets put in even more danger. A number of these inside migrant workers have disappeared already (Saw Htoo 2008) The media does little to help the plight of the migrant workers, the media has been promoting its mostly ethnocentric views since the 1990s.Along with this is the nationalistic school system in place in Thailand which portrays Burma as their old nemesis and little else.The idea of Burma being Thailand oldest enemy is shown throughout numerous modern Thai movies, where ancient Thai heroes valiantly defeat evil Burmese commanders and save the innocents.
“They don’t treat people well because they still view them as enemies,” said Tananart Sakolvittayanon, 22, a graduate of Thammasat University.
“We need to learn real history, not just history that they burned our city… This is the 21st century.” (Tang 2015)
What has been done to so far to aid the migrant workers in Thailand
Numerous Inter-governmental organisations have openly spoken out against Thailand and its human rights breaches. The International Labor Organisation(ILO) for example at the State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) had been criticising the Royal Thai Government(RTG) and how Thailand takes care of its migrant workers, saying that Thailand was in deep breach of International law. Savit Kaewarn, General Secretary of SERC, today said:
“Migrants in Thailand continue to suffer systematic discrimination as they work hand in hand with Thai workers to develop our economy. Instead of integrating foreign workers into our society, the Thai government consistently denies them their most fundamental rights. SERC again calls on the Ministry of Labour and all other public bodies to eliminate all discriminatory policies and laws to ensure migrant workers gain the fundamental rights to which all ‘workers,’ regardless of their nationality and immigration status, are entitled to.”
In 2012 the labour minister Minister Padermchai Sasomsap came up with a plan to help Thailand remove themselves from the “Tier 2 watch list”.This is a list from the Us State Department that Tiers countries on their level of human trafficking and efforts to stop it. The Labor Prim Ministers plan was to send all women who were three to four months pregnant back to Burma.This would then stop children being brought up in the ‘shanty towns’ where the workers live and further contributing the awful record of migrant child labour in Thailand.( Prachatai 2012).There are numerous other ways to help alleviate the human trafficking problem in Thailand, not simple deporting the pregnant women. The children of migrant workers should be educated and learn in established schools. The corrupt official should have pressure put on them and more efforts made to help the victims of trafficking.(Adams 2012). There have been some volunteer teachers, but little else can be done until the authorities allow the workers to move more freely and engage in the social domain.
What NGOs could be doing to help alleviate the burdens that face the migrant workers in Thailand
There has been criticisms of the Thai government and its handling of migrant workers. There does have to be more done for the workers at a local level, however. Workers should have more help in obtaining there legal working status. Little can be done as they remain illegal workers. Without legal status, they cannot gain access to healthcare and education which is pivotal for the workers to improve their status.As migrant workers have been coming to Thailand for almost thirty thirty years now, many have had families and now have multiple generations living together in shanty towns. The children do not receive an education which continues the cycle. Workers need freedom of movement to be able to gain better employment and not be tied to their employers. Employers must be held accountable and must have contracts checked by governing bodies. This way employer will not be able to withhold the worker’s paper or hold them ransom.
There are rampant human rights abuses currently taken place against the migrant workers in Thailand. There is little regulation for the workers. There is also no reprisal against those who are discriminating against migrant workers and denying them their basic human rights. The workers live in squalid conditions and have little education; their children do not have legal status either and therefore will fall into the same life as their parents. The authorities which should be protecting migrant workers are in fact abusing them, leaving them not one to turn to but instead seeing them as easy victims. Migrants have little knowledge of their rights and no nothing of unionising or forming policy. The migrant worker’s countries of origins should have stronger liaisons with Thai authorities to ensure the rights of workers and that more solid borders are enforced, and corrupt officials brought to account to help stop human trafficking.