In May 2008 I travelled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot. The town has long been a haven for both political refugees and migrant workers from Burma, just across the Moei River.
I spent several days with a group of illegal workers, who were living in a makeshift settlement at a construction site.
“We had to build our own houses”, says Ko-Maung, 31, “from what we could find lying around”. His house, where we are now sitting, is a tiny, crudely constructed shelter standing in an expanse of mud and foul-smelling water, and home to his family of four.
Since leaving their village in Bago division due to a dearth of financial opportunities and illicitly crossing the border into Thailand, he and his family have been living at a makeshift settlement adjacent to the construction site where he is now employed. His two children, Ei-Pan, six, and Ayin, three, sit watching television; the television set is powered by an illegal connection to the town’s main electricity lines in the absence of a proper supply.
As Ei-Pan’s parents cannot afford to pay for school books or a uniform, he has no option but to spend his days hanging around the village. His mother, Ma-Aye, 36, pulls down his shirt to reveal sores, a result, she says, of the unsanitary conditions in which her family lives. Ei-Pan is also small for his age, apparently a result of the lack of protein in his diet; Ma-Aye says she has been giving Ei-Pan and Ayin jaggery (unrefined sugar) to eat for want of any nutritious food.
The construction site, known as Ban Orr Ah Htoon, a sprawling low-cost housing estate, lies a few kilometres from the town of Mae Sot, Tak province. Security at the site is tight; outsiders, such as myself, are viewed with extreme suspicion. During my time here I find myself regularly being accosted by guards, and several times am aware of being watched from the rooftops of unfinished houses.
Ko-Maung has been designated as the leader of the group of Burmese living and working at this site. It is a position which entitles him to 80 baht more per day than his fellow workers, but which also brings many more problems. He describes a recent incident where he was given 30,000 baht by the Thai manager of the site, with which to pay the other workers. “It wasn’t enough”, he says, “less than 20 percent of what they were owed”. Fighting ensued in the village, with a number of workers being stabbed. “After that, several people left. They were starving”.
Now Ko-Maung himself is in debt, as he felt it right to help his fellow workers financially, from his own pocket. Aung Thu Win, sitting next to him, claims to be virtually penniless. His leg is wrapped in gauze, which he peels back slightly to reveal a deep gash, caused, he says, by a falling breeze block at the construction site. “I spent all of my money at the clinic”, he says. “The site manager washed his hands of the issue. He said it wasn’t his responsibility”. Aung Thu Win’s story is not an uncommon one here. During my visits I spot a number of men sporting various bandages; injuries, I am told, all sustained whilst working, and all of which were ignored by the employers.
A magnet for Burmese migrants, owing to its proximity to the border (it is easy to cross from the Burmese town of Myawaddy into Thailand whilst avoiding the official checkpoints) Mae Sot and its surrounding countryside are now home to around 150,000 Burmese. The local Thai population’s prejudice towards the Burmese in the area is a problem which Ko-Maung and his countrymen face on a daily basis. “If a Thai person sees us around the town”, he says, “they will often call the authorities. We never leave home without taking at least 100 baht with us, in case we have to bribe (the police)”.
Moe Swe is head of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers’ Association in Mae Sot. His organization tries to educate Burmese people about their rights in Thailand, so that they know if they are being exploited. This knowledge, however, is seldom helpful for the workers. “If a worker complains to their employer, the employer can do three things: fire them, have them beaten up or ask the police to arrest them”, explains Moe Swe. Arrest usually results in either deportation or a six-month prison sentence.
Stories of abuse are common. Moe Swe tells the story of a group of five workers at a farm, 48km from the town, who were accused of stealing from their employer. The employer shot them and later burned the bodies. This case only came to light because one of the workers miraculously survived the shooting and, in the immediate aftermath convincing his would-be murderer that he was dead, subsequently managed to escape. “Outside of the city”, Moe Swe says, “the rules are much less strictly enforced. Employers often report to the authorities that workers have died, but no cause of death is ever given”.
Although, according to the International Labour Organization, migrant workers (of which the Burmese comprise around 75 percent) have in recent times contributed around US$53 million per year to the Thai economy, the Thai government still seems unwilling to address the issue of exploitation. It seems that it is easier for them not to recognise migrant workers as being a significant part of the economy, rather than to raise questions about their treatment. Indeed, many hold the opinion that the Thai economy needs migrant workers; it is the “dirty, dangerous and demeaning” jobs, which Thai people are often unwilling to do, which are usually filled by migrants.
For Ko-Maung and his family, the future remains uncertain. “Two years ago, we saved enough money to go home”, he says, “but when we arrived there was no work for us. Having spent nearly all our money on the trip and left with virtually nothing, we were forced to return to Thailand”.