LIVING IN FEAR
Phuket’s migrants face indentity crisis
Aplace of never-ending construction. A hunting ground for job seekers. A paradise for modern gold diggers who arrive with nothing and leave with full pockets: Phuket offers opportunities aplenty to those ready to give it a go. New construction sites emerge every month. Roads are endlessly repaired to improve the traffic on an island that welcomes 12 million tourists a year. New jobs abound in this booming economy.
Stories of individual achievement have enticed many people to take their chances on Phuket — an ice cream shop becomes popular in a short period of time, a young entrepreneur gets rich from tourism, a street food vendor ends ups owning a restaurant.
But amid these tales of success, there are people who drive the local economy but struggle in invisibility.
At a well-known flower shop in downtown Phuket, Ladda*, 20, was eventually able to get a job to start a new life.
Her task is to twine garlands and do flower arrangements for customers. Valentine’s Day will be a busy day for her. The shop owner is happy to have a young and hard-working staff member on a budget.
Ladda was born in Samut Prakan with the assistance of a midwife. Her parents, Myanmar migrants from Dawei, did not register her birth, leaving her a stateless person.
Her father died at a young age. Her mother’s whereabouts are unknown. She was raised in Kanchanaburi by a relative. Myanmar is a country she doesn’t know.
She has been trying to trace her origin so that she can apply for a Thai ID card. She visited her birthplace but no one can confirm her birth and her mother’s identity.
Her legal limbo means most employers turn down her application.
“I don’t have a dream. The only thing I want is a secure life, a job and a good education,” she says.
Ladda is the offspring of migrants trapped in the middle of nowhere. People like her are attracted by Phuket’s job market that is open to everyone ... even if you’re stateless or an illegal migrant.
In 2014, Phuket ranked the top southern province and the 10th in Thailand in terms of gross provincial product at 138 billion baht, according to the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board.
As of October 2016, there were 62,899 registered migrant workers, with Myanmar representing 97% and Laos and Cambodia accounting for the rest. The number of foreign workers from other nations is much smaller at 15,601.
An estimated 200,000 undocumented migrant workers live in Phuket, according to local NGOs, falling into different categories such as stateless, illegal migrant and non-Thais who are in a nationality verification process.
In search of opportunity, young migrant workers may lose the ability to dream in a hardworking life. They are treated as low class despite Phuket’s economic growth depending on them.
They are part of the success stories of the visible population. But people hesitate to mention their well-being.
LIVING IN FEAR
“More than 10 here,” Thuza* whispers while waiting for her order at a restaurant in downtown Phuket.
“That one has not been counted,” says her Thai friend, glancing at a young waiter in a black T-shirt. His left earlobe is stretched with a dark thick hoop — an accessory popular among young men.
Thuza shakes her head. “He is.” Looking around — a woman at the cash counter, a female cleaner in the corner, cooks, waiters and waitresses — Thuza reminds us that young Myanmar migrant workers surround us, and it’s impossible to draw a line between the local and migrant population in daily life.
Many of the migrant community arrived in Phuket at a young age. Some entered Thailand illegally with brokers and gained work permits later.
Some were born in Thailand knowing that they are from Myanmar but don’t know anything about their parents’ place of origin, so feel confused when asked to define themselves.
Thuza, now a social worker, left Dawei when she was 14. She has taken a number of jobs in Phuket including housekeeper and tuna factory worker.
In her early days in Phuket, she lived in fear of being arrested. She shut herself up at home. When she enrolled in a Thai-language class, she discovered that most of the migrant participants dispersed after a week due to fear of being detained.
Now 25, she has obtained a work permit and started to question her identity. She always sees a strange place whenever she looks at pictures of her hometown on the internet. “I can’t say how I feel. It’s hard to explain,” she says. “I feel closer to Phuket than my place of origin.”
Migrant workers’ unease stems from the way they are treated as an underclass, facing police raids and exploitation by employers.
Social media are full of complaints about state hospitals being packed by migrants and their increasing presence in public, which often leads to discussions about threats to sovereignty and allowing too many migrants into the country. Chief among the questions is who is going pay for their well-being.
According to the National Labour Information Centre, in 2016 there were about 420,000 job vacancies in Thailand, or around 30,000 to 42,000 a month.
Most of the demand is for basic jobs — physical tasks like cleaning, packing goods, working in the fishery and agricultural sectors and on construction sites — which accounted for 147,302 positions, followed by service or sales work in shops and markets (77,232) and clerical or office work (63,142).
Workers with secondary education were most in demand, accounting for 138,535 positions, followed by those with a primary education or below (69,957) and vocational certificate (62,250). Some 57,307 positions required a tertiary education from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees.
As these statistics reveal, large numbers of vacancies do not require a high education level, at odds with the national trend towards secondary-school enrolment, which stood at 86.98% in 2012, according to the World Bank.
The lion’s share of available positions are for jobs middle-class Thais would not be interested in.
In the third quarter of 2016, 6.36% of employees in Thailand were migrant workers from three countries; Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
The Phuket Fishing Association reported last year that the local fisheries industry required over 2,000 migrant workers but only 1,200 were available. The lack of migrant workers has been a chronic problem for Phuket.
“The thing that employers fear most of all is migrant workers returning home,” says Wirachai Sadsom, president of the Phuket Business Contractor Club, which has over 300 members.
“Such a scenario would mean the collapse of our business. The local economy — even government development projects like roads and logistics infrastructure — can’t progress without migrant workers. Migrants do jobs that Thais won’t do any more.”
MISERY AMID OPPORTUNITIES
Every morning, the downtown market is filled with Myanmar migrants instead of Thai-Chinese and locals as was the case decades ago.
Local shop operators hire Myanmar migrants for many tasks including selling goods, carrying items and sorting vegetables.
Some migrants who have enough savings open their own businesses selling miscellaneous goods to migrants. Thanaka, the yellow cosmetic paste made from ground bark, is displayed in some shops.
At the back of the market, some migrants rest in a restaurant, drinking and tucking into Burmese food.
Colourful clothes hang from the window frames of the upper floors of dormitory buildings for migrant workers.
A sense of fear is palpable whenever strangers or officials enter the area.
Some young Myanmar migrants Spectrum spoke to said they want to return home as soon as they have earned enough.
“I feel safe in Myanmar because I can go anywhere. But here I’m afraid of everything. I prefer my home country, but I have to work here for some years,” says Min*, 36, a migrant worker at a tuna factory.
He spends most of his free time in a onestorey rented house in Koh Sirey, cramped in a small space of no more than 10 square metres that he shares with his roommate Wah*, 22.
Their room contains only a mattress, blankets and a couple of baskets. A picture of Buddha and a bunch of fake lotus flowers rest on an altar attached to the wall.
The house is shared by another couple in their early 20s, like many groups of young migrants that live together for a feeling of security.
Min and Wah have dyed patches of their hair red. Both of them are legal migrants who have never seen the ocean despite living in Phuket for two years.
“I’ve never thought of anything but working,”
The thing employers fear most of all is migrant workers returning home WIRACHAI SADSOM PRESIDENT OF THE PHUKET BUSINESS CONTRACTOR CLUB
>> says Min, who has worked since the age of 13 to feed his family.
“I want to look around but I can’t. It’s not a happy life. It’s stressful. But the money we earn here can feed a whole family in Myanmar. There are opportunities here,” Wah adds.
Both of them are considering returning home as they have not been paid in full in recent months. They suspect this is due to declining fish stock.
Just like Ladda, their dreams are obscure. When asked about his prospects, Min answers: “Maybe having a small shop selling miscellaneous items when I go back to Myanmar.”
Thailand’s military government has implemented urgent measures to manage and protect migrant workers. The junta was responding to the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report that downgraded Thailand to Tier 3 status and the European Union issuing a yellow card over Thailand’s failure to take sufficient measures to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
Underground migrant workers are being brought to light to protect them from human trafficking. One-stop service registration centres have been set up across the country, requesting employers to register their illegal migrant workers.
The series of measures was claimed to have influenced the TIP report to upgrade Thailand to Tier 2 last year amid international criticism that it was politically motivated.
On the ground, however, the problem of undocumented migrants shows few signs of going away. Employers who prefer illegal migrants — because they are cheap and easily exploited — will never register their workers.
ESSENTIAL TO THE ECONOMY
Phuket is one of the toughest places to get migrant workers’ rights recognised, unlike border towns where residents and authorities are familiar with the influx of migrants. Outsiders to the island are diverse in terms of place of origin and nationality, meaning migrant workers are eclipsed by others.
Undocumented migrants can apply for the migrant health insurance scheme, which costs 2,200 baht a year. The scheme was initiated by the Public Health Ministry to offer migrants access to healthcare which, in return, prevents the spread of communicable diseases.
It was heavily promoted in 2013 that any migrant could buy the insurance at the nearest state hospital. They would not be asked about their status or asked to show a work permit. In fact, asking for a work permit is a regular occurrence. Migrants have to pass medical check-ups and get a doctor’s confirmation that they’re capable of working before being granted insurance.
A pregnant woman may not be eligible to apply if the doctor considers she’s incapable of working.
“We don’t reject anyone in the healthcare system. Some of them may not obtain a work permit,” says Prapornsri Narintaruksa, deputy director of Phuket Provincial Public Health Office. “But without a work permit, the situation gets complicated.”
Undocumented migrants who do not have health insurance are often unable to afford healthcare services.
There have been reports of migrant parents abandoning their infants at state hospitals because they can’t pay the fees — 6,000 baht for childbirth assistance, 12,000 baht for a caesarean and 1,800 to 3,200 baht for an infant incubator.
With a tough working life and little money, migrant mothers often fail to take care of their pregnancies, resulting in underweight and weak infants, meaning more money to pay for healthcare services.
Some migrants have to resort to informal loans, at over 20% interest, to cover medical costs.
In many cases, migrant parents don’t register the birth of a child either out of fear or lack of awareness.
Hospital operators will usually issue a certificate reporting a birth, then parents must use it to apply for a birth certificate at the district office.
But Phuket state hospitals have experienced
There is no line between Thai and Myanmar. The Thai economy is driven by migrants
SUMANA PHAKBULAWAT FIELD COORDINATOR SURAT THANI CATHOLIC FOUNDATION
fraud by migrants such as using a female migrant’s work documents to apply for a prenatal clinic for other migrants.
Operators now require a copy of an employee’s ID card and census registration from migrant mothers to issue a birth report, which causes difficulties for migrants because employers are not willing to provide copies of personal documents. Not surprisingly, many migrants do not register a child’s birth.
“Migrants are already gripped by fear, so they will run away when problems occur, such as having no money to pay for childbirth services,” says Sumana Phakbulawat, field coordinator for the Diocesan Social Action Centre of Surat Thani Catholic Foundation, who follows up on migrant healthcare cases.
Around 18 to 20 babies are born to migrant workers in hospitals in Phuket town every week. Around 10 will not be registered.
In some cases, Ms Sumana traces the family of the migrant parents in Myanmar and sends the abandoned infant to them. Those whose parents can’t be traced are sent to foster homes.
According to the Interior Ministry, as of Dec 31, 2015, there were 8,263 stateless persons in Phuket. It’s not clear how many are descendants of stateless migrants.
“The problem of stateless children of migrant workers will be a big problem for Phuket if no one tackles it now,” says Ms Sumana.
Myanmar migrants formed the Migrant Workers’ Network in Phuket two years ago to help migrant workers understand their rights and educate them about Thai laws and customs.
“We have to admit the reality that migrant workers have been a part of Thai society for many years. There is no line between Thai and Myanmar,” says Ms Sumana. “The Thai economy is driven by migrants too.”
Last year, the Thai Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism website cited a study by Mahidol University’s College of Management that showed Myanmar migrants generate 20.7 billion baht a year, based on an estimated population of 2.3 million migrants of whom half are illegal. Their total remittances back home are worth around 60 billion baht a year.
A PLACE TO RETURN
At first glance, San*, 19, looks just like a typical local teenager in a T-shirt and denim, her hair dyed brown-red and speaking fluent Thai.
But when she tells her story, it reveals the complex situation of a youth who struggles to get people to accept her existence.
“I do not consider myself a migrant,” she says. Her father is from Dawei and her mother is Mon. She was born with a midwife’s assistance in Pilok village, Kanchanaburi. Her parents didn’t register her birth, resulting in her stateless status.
With support from religious organisations, she managed to move to Phuket to study until Grade 9. But she can’t proceed to higher education because universities do not accept undocumented persons. She’s now working for a social organisation helping the less fortunate.
“I’ve spent a lot of money on verifying my identity,” she says. “As far as I can remember, all of my life has been about trying to get documented status.”
That includes travelling to Kanchanaburi on numerous occasions to present her case to the district office. Sometimes she pays extra to state officials to proceed with her nationality verification.
She regularly checks the Interior Ministry’s website to see if there are new announcements about the verification process and calls local officials in Pilok to check her case.
The next generation of migrant descendants — whose parents were denied labour or healthcare rights, or who were abandoned at hospitals — will likely struggle like San just to find a way to gain acceptance in Thailand.
But there will be those who can find a happy ending if they have a place to return to, no matter if it’s Thailand or Myanmar.
Early this month when Spectrum met Thuza again, she had good news.
She will return to Dawei next month, the first time she’s been home in a decade, to get a Myanmar ID card then return to Phuket.
“I want to touch Dawei and see what it’s like,” she says with a grin. “It’s still my place of origin. But Phuket is my home too.”
CALL HOME: A Burmese-language sign promotes mobile telephone services in downtown Phuket. Many young Myanmar migrants intend to return home as soon as they have earned enough on the southern resort island.
A TASTE OF HOME: A small restaurant in the Myanmar community in Phuket. Many migrants arrived in Phuket at a young age. Some entered Thailand illegally and gained work permits later.
TUCK IN: A Myanmar migrant worker makes traditional snacks at an eatery in Phuket that caters to the migrant community. Some migrants who have enough savings open their own businesses.
UNDERCLASS: An estimated 200,000 undocumented migrant workers live in Phuket, falling into different categories such as stateless, illegal and non-Thais in a nationality verification process.
MANPOWER SHORTAGE: A Myanmar migrant worker prepares a net. The Phuket Fishing Association reported last year that local fisheries required over 2,000 migrant workers but only 1,200 were available.
SOMEONE’S GOT TO DO IT: A Myanmar migrant working on a fishing boat. Migrants from neighbouring countries usually take jobs that Thais would not be interested in.
WORKING UP A LATHER: A Myanmar worker takes a shower on a fishing boat. As of October 2016, there were 62,899 registered migrant workers in Phuket, with Myanmar accounting for 97%.