Myan­mar work­ers in Thai­land vic­tims of a bro­ken sys­tem

New chaos to highlight the pre­car­i­ous lives of mi­grants

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

MYAWADDY: With only mea­ger be­long­ings stuffed into back­packs and duf­fel bags, tens of thou­sands of Myan­mar mi­grants have streamed home across the Thai bor­der over the past two weeks. But it is not a joy­ous home­com­ing for the truck­loads of men and women, who fled Thai­land in fear of a new law that hard­ens penal­ties on the mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented mi­grant work­ers un­der­pin­ning its econ­omy. Thai­land’s sud­den roll­out of the la­bor de­cree, which hikes up fines on un­reg­is­tered work­ers and their em­ploy­ers, sent a light­ning bolt of panic through mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties.

“If we were ar­rested, we would have to pay money to po­lice. If this hap­pened, all of our money would dis­ap­pear,” Thu Ya, who worked in a Thai plas­tics fac­tory, told AFP while prepar­ing to cross back into Myan­mar’s eastern bor­der town of Myawaddy. The mass ex­o­dus of mi­grants-es­ti­mated to be more than 60,000 — is only the lat­est chaos to highlight the pre­car­i­ous lives of mi­grant work­ers who take up dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous jobs in Thai­land’s fac­to­ries and fish­ing boats.

Much of the work force lacks proper doc­u­men­ta­tion and lives in con­stant fear of ex­ploita­tion from po­lice, bosses, and traf­fick­ers. And yet many Myan­mar mi­grants scram­bling across the bor­der said these hard­ships still beat the prospect of dire poverty in their home­land, where jobs and good wages are dif­fi­cult to come by. “I will con­sider com­ing back in a le­gal way, with the full doc­u­ments,” said Thu Ya, 32, who has spent much of his life in Thai­land.

‘We have a prob­lem’

Myan­mar’s new civil­ian gov­ern­ment, which came to power last year, was ex­pected to usher in a wind­fall of for­eign in­vest­ment into a re­source-rich coun­try that was closed off to the world dur­ing the for­mer junta’s 50-year reign.

In a ju­bi­lant visit to Thai­land in June 2016, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to drive the eco­nomic growth that would bring her coun­try­men home. But a year on the gains have fallen short of ex­pec­ta­tions and Myan­mar is still years away from of­fer­ing wages that ri­val those in Thai­land. A steep de­cline in for­eign in­vest­ment-down 28 per­cent in the last quar­ter of 2016 — sounded alarm bells over an econ­omy whose ini­tial open­ing in 2011 was met with a rush of in­vestor ex­cite­ment. The coun­try’s GDP growth also fell be­low seven per­cent for the first time in five years in 2016, clock­ing in at 6.5 per­cent. Hav­ing fleet­ingly be­come the fastest-grow­ing econ­omy in the re­gion, Myan­mar now lags be­hind the Philip­pines, Laos and Cam­bo­dia. Econ­o­mists blame the slump on a lack of clar­ity from the new gov­ern­ment on its eco­nomic poli­cies, as well as the pon­der­ous progress in pass­ing a new in­vest­ment law.

“We have a prob­lem be­cause the min­is­ters have no eco­nomic cul­ture, and then the re­forms are done too slowly,” said Myan­mar econ­o­mist Khin Maung Nyo. The young civil­ian gov­ern­ment, stacked with po­lit­i­cal novices, faces the mon­u­men­tal chal­lenge of try­ing to un­pick the junta’s dev­as­tat­ing eco­nomic legacy. “We need to cre­ate thou­sands of jobs but I doubt we will be able to do it quickly,” Khin Maung Nyo added.

‘They’ll be back’

In the mean­time, Thai­land looks set to con­tinue to be a mag­net for its neigh­bour’s work­ers. Huge sec­tions of Thai­land’s econ­omy, es­pe­cially con­struc­tion and food pro­duc­tion, rely on mi­grants to do jobs that com­par­a­tively wealth­ier Thais have long since es­chewed. And while the coun­try has one of the slow­est growth rates in Asia, the min­i­mum wage of 305 baht ($9) a day is more than three times the equiv­a­lent in Myan­mar.

Since com­ing to power in 2014 Thai­land’s junta has un­veiled a se­ries of cam­paigns to cleanup abuses in its mi­grant labour sec­tor, which also at­tracts sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of work­ers from Cam­bo­dia and Laos. But rights groups say the drives are of­ten short lived and ad-hoc, cre­at­ing more con­fu­sion. This time was no dif­fer­ent.

Caught off-guard by the mass ex­o­dus, Thai­land’s junta ruled last week to sus­pend its new law for six months. Junta chief Prayut ChanO-Cha called for calm and re­as­sured busi­ness own­ers: “Don’t panic, they will come back soon.” He is likely to be right. Si­lar, a Myan­mar nurse work­ing in Bangkok, went home full of hope in 2015, ea­ger to re­unite with her hus­band and daugh­ter. But she strug­gled to find work and is now back in the Thai cap­i­tal-gripped with fear af­ter mis­plac­ing her work per­mit. “In Myan­mar, there is still not enough work, es­pe­cially in the coun­try­side, and wages re­main very low,” she told AFP, us­ing a pseu­do­nym for anonymity. “I do not know what I’m go­ing to do.” — AFP

MYAWADDY: This photo taken on July 7, 2017 shows mi­grant work­ers ar­riv­ing in an of­fi­cial ser­vice truck from Thai­land at the Myan­mar im­mi­gra­tion of­fice. — AFP

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