Nang Lao Liang Won
Migrant Assistant Programme, Thailand
More than half a century of civil wars have ravaged the Burmese economy. As a result, many people seek employment in other countries. Since the early 1990s, there has been an unprecedented number of Burmese migrating to Thailand. These people fleeing to Thailand are often leaving situations of extreme poverty, ethnic violence and human rights abuse, and a lack of education and employment inside Burma. Particularly since March 1996, tens of thousands of Shan ethnic people have fled a massive forced relocation campaign carried out by the present Burmese military regime, SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) in central Shan State, Burma. Unlike the profile of usual migrant workers, these refugees from Burma consist of entire families, including the very young and very old. Most of them, including the Shan ethnic people, are completely denied support as refugees. Therefore these refugees are forced to find work, and also have the added difficulty of supporting their older family members and children who stay with them.
Since Thailand and Burma have no agreements regarding the import and export of labor, all migrants are vulnerable, lack working rights and have to use “brokers “ to find jobs. They enter the lowest levels of the Thai labor market which Thai workers have turned their backs on because of the hard work and risks involved; jobs which have been nicknamed the 3Ds in Thailand: dirty, difficult and dangerous (fishery industry, construction, sex work in closed brothels, rice mills and some types of agriculture).
According to the Ministry of Interior of Thailand, there are approximately 1.2 million people from Burma who have entered Thailand illegally. Employers exploit the situation of all illegal workers from Burma by not complying with the standards set by local labor laws e.g., ignoring safety regulations and paying well below the minimum wage. They are placed in vulnerable situations with no legal recourse. Half of the 1.2 million are illegal Burmese migrant women workers, who not only have to face discrimination as illegal migrant workers but also as women. They face discrimination not only from the host community but also from their own community. Because of the social structure of these societies, all men have more power than women. They have faced violence at home and they face violence in Thailand. Migrant women are subject to both domestic and public violence and labor market exploitation.
Few survivors of such abuses are willing to come forward to press charges against the offenders as most do not have knowledge of their rights. Plus there is lack of support services such as counseling to deal with post-trauma for the survivors and their family members. There have been several cases of women being abused by Thai officials and not getting a proper response from the Thai authorities partly due to women’s lack of legal assistance and paralegal training. As women’s groups in the refugee camps take up this issue, more and more women are coming forward to tell their stories. Through networking, women themselves have identified the need for legal assistance with regard to resolving such widespread worker abuse, and holding accountable those found guilty of such violence. For more information see Guidelines on Strategies and Responses to the Needs of Burmese Migrant Women in Thailand, published by APWLD in 1999.
Thai Policy on Migrant Labor
From August 1996, provisions were made for temporary registration of previously illegal workers. With the economic crisis hitting employment in Thailand in 1997, the government reacted by rescinding work permits and threatening to repatriate migrant workers. This policy met with some resistance from employers; in July 1998 a resolution was passed to extend the work permits for one more year. Then in August 1999 the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare released its policy for the registration process and serious intent to deport undocumented migrant laborers. A 90-day registration process, which began on August 4th ended on November 1st 1999. Then from November 3rd, a massive crackdown on illegal labor was launched openly all over Thailand. In major towns and along the Thai-Burma border from south to north, Burmese migrant workers were rounded up and forcibly deported.
Women are particularly vulnerable to harm. During the violent confusion of the deportation crackdown, women found themselves with even less control, while men, including Thai and Burmese authorities, jumped at opportunities to take advantage of women with impunity (for a full report, see Dignity Denied). Within a month the initial frenzy of deportations died down. Gradually, Burmese workers came back and business has become normal again. In last August 2000, a Thai cabinet meeting passed a resolution to extend the work permits of migrant workers for one more year.
Several NGOs in Chiangmai working with displaced persons, refugees, and migrant sex-workers had informally been pooling resources to assist migrants in crisis with translation at hospitals and with liaisons between government departments. In 1996 a network (MAP-NET) was established involving five Chiangmai-based NGOs. The network identified the needs of migrant workers, after which our group, a team of local and migrant volunteers and experienced NGO workers was formed to fulfill their needs. MAP commenced its full program in September 1997 with the Health Project, Crisis Support Project and Media Kit Project. To date, MAP has started five projects altogether, including a Community Education Project and a Women’s Project. The health team is now well known on construction sites and easily accessed by the migrants for health problems. The health team has organized trainings for MAP volunteers so that they can also give advice and counseling in their other outreach work.
Under the media kit project, there are two programs: a radio program and a material production program. It produces audio magazines on cassette tapes every two months on some information requiring more time and several listenings. The material production team works on the production of brochures and posters on different issues such as AIDS/HIV. There is also a booklet on “survival skills”in Thailand and another on Thai labor laws and rights. Moreover MAP tries to address the attitudes among Thais towards migrant workers via a monthly newsletter in Thai which is distributed to GOs and NGOs that gives host populations a better understanding of who the migrant workers are and what their situation is.
In March of 1999, MAP initiated a new project to empower migrant women. MAP runs a monthly meeting for women from Burma in Chiangmai, called Women Exchange (WE). This provides women an opportunity to come together and exchange experiences and to discuss many different issues concerning women. It is also gives them the experience of planning, facilitating and participating in meetings in a very relaxed setting. With the support of WE, more and more women are attending the meeting, and now two more centers on the Thai-Burma border are holding monthly WE meetings. Through WE, the project of “Violence against Migrant Women” is currently under way. The aim of the project is to support survivors of abuse, and to provide information for all women through education and legal counsel on their rights to work free from threats of abuse. In addition, training on Thai laws is provided, and cases of violence are documented in order to take action.
MAP's cooperation with local, national, regional, and international NGOs and Gos
Over the past three years, MAP has also expanded its network to every level from the local to international. MAP networks with women's groups locally, nationally, regionally and internationally for the safety and protection of migrant women from Burma.
Moreover, with the collaboration of other Thai NGOs, MAP is lobbying the host government (Thailand) for fairer conditions for migrant workers. Plus, to address the root causes of the migration of Burmese - namely the political problems in Burma - MAP tries to increase awareness among the Thai population about the situation in Burma. In order that the Thai people will call on their democratic government to acknowledge and address the abuses in Burma and to support the movement towards democracy in Burma, MAP organizes public awareness raising campaigns on particular days, e.g. Women of Burma Day, 8888 Ten Anniversary (an event prior to 9999). MAP also organizes letter-writing campaigns, including writing open letters to the Prime Minister of Thailand and to the leaders of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) on current issues, as well as postcard campaigns on child labor, etc.
For more information, please contact:
MAP (Migrant Assistance Programme)
P.O Box 7, Chiangmai University Post Office
Chiangmai, 50202 Thailand
Tel/Fax ++ 66 53 811 202