The mi­grant barom­e­ter

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS -

There’s no doubt that Myan­mar’s econ­omy is grow­ing af­ter more than three years of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion un­der the stew­ard­ship of Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s govern­ment. GDP growth climbed to an es­ti­mated 7.5 per­cent in the fis­cal year to the end of March, up from a re­vised 7.3 per­cent the pre­vi­ous year, says the Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank. The busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment is im­prov­ing, for­eign in­vestors are sign­ing-up for the long haul and the num­ber of for­eign tourists this year is likely to triple the fig­ure for 2010. There’s some wari­ness among po­ten­tial for­eign in­vestors ahead of the na­tional elec­tion due to take place late next year but it is cer­tain to be bet­ter con­ducted than the flawed poll in 2010. Over­all, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­forms are chang­ing the lives of most of the peo­ple for the bet­ter.

If there is one barom­e­ter of the for­tunes of the coun­try’s ur­ban and ru­ral work­ers, it’s the num­ber of peo­ple who con­tinue to suf­fer the cost and en­dure the dan­gers and un­cer­tainty of seek­ing em­ploy­ment over­seas. Most of these peo­ple are from the coun­try­side, where about two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion lives and a lack of jobs is a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive to go abroad. Al­though no up-to-date sur­vey has been con­ducted on the to­tal num­ber of Myan­mar work­ers abroad, there are es­ti­mated to be about two mil­lion in Thai­land alone, with a size­able num­ber in Malaysia, and smaller pop­u­la­tions in other coun­tries in the re­gion. With per­ma­nent em­ploy­ment in short sup­ply in ru­ral ar­eas, the steady stream of Myan­mar trav­el­ling abroad to find the jobs that do not ex­ist for them at home is likely to con­tinue un­abated for years.

The re­cent an­nounce­ment by an over- seas job-place­ment group that Myan­mar will be re­cruited to work in Ma­cau will ease the sit­u­a­tion only slightly. Jobs in the Chi­nese spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion are be­ing ad­ver­tised as pay­ing two or three times more than those in Thai­land and Malaysia. But even if this true, such em­ploy­ment in­volves liv­ing abroad for years at a time and the hard­ship of be­ing sep­a­rated from loved ones. The pub­lic­ity for the jobs will al­ways sound bet­ter than the re­al­ity.

The mi­grant ex­o­dus con­tin­ues, de­spite the hur­dles and the hard­ships.

Mi­grant work­ers in Thai­land ap­pear to be go­ing through wor­ry­ing times since the mil­i­tary coup on May 22. There have been mixed sig­nals from the Thai junta’s Na­tional Coun­cil for Peace and Or­der un­der Gen­eral Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was ap­pointed prime min­is­ter on Au­gust 22. Tens of thou­sands of Cam­bo­dian mi­grant work­ers

fled Thai­land for home af­ter the junta an­nounced a crack­down on il­le­gal work­ers. Then the junta ap­peared to re­con­sider the move, pos­si­bly out of con­cern about the im­pact of a se­ri­ous labour short­age, and said mi­grants work­ers were wel­come. Con­fu­sion reigned.

Mi­grant worker ac­tivist Andy Hall says the cost and bu­reau­cracy in­volved in mi­grants be­ing of­fi­cially reg­is­tered in Thai­land is still trou­bling. De­spite a com­mit­ment by the Thai junta to ad­dress labour mi­gra­tion and hu­man traf­fick­ing, as well as a regis­tra­tion amnesty, Mr Hall says the costs as­so­ci­ated with the mi­grant pass­port reg­u­lar­i­sa­tion process and visa ex­ten­sions for Myan­mar and Cam­bo­dian work­ers re­main ex­or­bi­tant. The fees in­volved are min­i­mal, says Mr Hall, but the sys­tem is rid­dled with cor­rup­tion and too many recruitmen­t agents, govern­ment of­fi­cials and com­pa­nies are prof­it­ing hand­somely at the ex­pense of vul­ner­a­ble mi­grant work­ers. De­spite these hur­dles, Myan­mar mi­grant work­ers con­tinue to tol­er­ate a chal­leng­ing bu­reau­cratic process or take the risk of work­ing il­le­gally, usu­ally be­cause they have a fam­ily to sup­port in their moth­er­land.

What does this say about the sit­u­a­tion back home? Many Myan­mar have no op­tion other than to try to make a liv­ing in Thai­land, Malaysia or else­where, de­spite the risks. It’s tough sup­port­ing a fam­ily if you are farm­ing a small plot over which ten­ure is un­cer­tain. The agri­cul­tural mar­ket­ing sys­tem is poorly de­vel­oped and de­lays caused by poor roads mean lower prices for pro­duce past its prime. Mid­dle­men take a big cut and it’s easy to slip into a spi­ral of crip­pling debt. Cou­pled with job short­ages it’s lit­tle won­der many Myan­mar head over­seas.

The Myan­mar govern­ment is not blind to this sit­u­a­tion. Pro­grammes launched by the govern­ment, in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions and non-govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions are bring­ing im­prove­ment to the agri­cul­tural sec­tor and help­ing to re­duce dire poverty lev­els in some parts of the coun­try. But ef­forts to ex­pand job op­por­tu­ni­ties tend to be fo­cused on cities and the de­vel­op­ment of spe­cial eco­nomic or in­dus­trial zones. With so many peo­ple liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas, more needs to be to en­cour­age in­dus­try to de­cen­tralise so that job op­por­tu­ni­ties are spread through­out the coun­try. There is an ur­gent need for a com­pre­hen­sive ru­ral de­vel­op­ment plan cov­er­ing pro­duc­tion, land se­cu­rity, train­ing, the im­prove­ment of trans­port net­works and the ex­pan­sion of the na­tional elec­tric­ity grid.

None of this can hap­pen overnight. It needs to start with a vi­sion. For the sake of those who en­dure hard­ship and ex­ploita­tion abroad be­cause they have no al­ter­na­tive, it is a vi­sion which must be em­braced by Myan­mar pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

Myan­mar mi­grants un­load­ing the catch from a trawler in Thai­land. Photo: Mizzima

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