The migrant barometer
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