‘No place for anger or hatred’: Migrant workers in Thailand unite across ethnic lines

Thailand has an estimated three million migrant workers. Many of them are refugees and asylum seekers from neighbouring Myanmar, fleeing decades of conflict. They are fighting for their rights.


Senin, 28 Agus 2017 09:55 WIB

Migrant workers in Mae Sod Thailand (Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew)

Migrant workers in Mae Sod Thailand (Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew)

Thailand has an estimated three million migrant workers. One million are legally registered to work in the country, while two million work undocumented.

The majority of them are refugees and asylum seekers from neighbouring Myanmar, fleeing decades of conflict.

Since the military junta took power in 2014, migrant workers have been targeted. Tens of thousands fled the country in the week following the military’s takeover.

In June, pressure was ramped up once more, as the government announced harsh new penalties targeting undocumented migrant workers. 

On the Thai-Myanmar border, Kannikar Petchkaew met with migrant workers from Myanmar, who are uniting across the ethnic lines that divided them at home. 

In 1988, Moe Swe took to the streets of Yangon, Myanmar along with hundreds of thousands of other students, through mass protest, they aimed to end three decades of military rule. 

But the military met their protest with guns. They were quickly crushed. Many were killed. Others, like Moe Swe, fled. 

Moe Swe ran to Thailand. When he arrived at the border town of Mae Sod, he joined hundreds of thousands of others also fleeing Myanmar, and the long-running conflict between ethnic minority groups and the military.

Moe Swe began life as an unregistered migrant worker in factories and on construction sites. 

But conditions were poor. He often worked without pay. With no proper housing, he lived in a shelter which was often the targeted by immigration and army officers. To avoid arrest or deportation, he had to bribe officials. 

After 10 years, he was fed up. 

In 1999, Moe Swe set up Yaung Chi Oo Workers’ Association to fight for the rights of migrant workers like himself. 

“When there's a conflict between employers and employees we told the workers to negotiate and we try to mediate,” Swe explained. 

“If they can not get the agreement we took them to the professional legal office”

In the border town of Mae Sod, there are almost one hundred thousand migrant workers from Myanmar. They are spread across hundreds of factories, working in labour intensive industries like garment manufacturing. 

Thailand’s minimum wage is $15 a day, but here workers tell me they are paid much less than that. Registered workers are paid $5, and unregistered workers are paid just half of that, about $2.50 a day. 

But when Moe Swe started the Workers Association, he says they weren’t taken seriously.

“The local labor protection and welfare office, they think we are the trouble maker. But now, they understand. Because we also try to meditate between employers and employees,” Swe said.

The organization set up safe houses for workers, a day care centre for their children, and a mobile clinic. They launched law suits against several employers, and won compensation for about 200 underpaid workers. 

Now, they are one of the most respected organizations for migrant workers in Thailand. And Moe Swe says they’re facing one of their biggest challenges yet.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth says he is determined to push unregistered workers back to their country of origin. 

Harsh new penalties announced in June could put workers in gaol for up to 5 years. And employers face fines of up to $25 000. 

On the other side of Mae Sod, I met Aung Aung, the leader of advocate group, Arakan Labour Camp.

With the new penalties facing unregistered workers, Aung Aung says their situation is more vulnerable than ever. 

But he proudly tells me that while ethnic divisions have divided Myanmar for decades, here workers are uniting across ethnic lines, to fight for their rights. 

“I have never thought of refusing anybody,” he said. 

“I help whether they are Burmese or from any minority group. They came to us because they believed that we can help. If we can’t help we ask for help from other organizations that can.”

Aung Aung fled fighting in Rakhine state, Western Myanmar in 2008. In Thailand, he worked in a garment factory for six months without pay, before he sought help.

He tells me that he has a lot to be angry about. His home town has been stormed by the army time and time again, turning it into a warzone. He tells me he resents the Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim minority.

But here in Thailand, living as a migrant worker, and fighting for the rights of other workers, his perspective has changed. 

Faced with the threat of having to flee the place that they fled to, he tells me there isn’t room for anger or hatred.

“I used to feel angry about what had happened and I really hated them. But I learnt that anger doesn’t help solve any problems,” Aung Aung confessed. 

“I told myself to concentrate on the problems at hand, instead of focusing on how I felt.”


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