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Saturday, March 13, 2010
Posted by YCOWA

Situation of Burmese Migrant workers in Thailand

Background Situation

Burma’s political and economic situation has deteriorated since the current military regime came into power in 1988. The military government’s lack of an integrated policy, mismanagement of the economy and practice of corruption within the whole government mechanism, has fueled the worsening economic situation.

Due to the country’s economic crisis and the hardships of daily survival, massive Burmese populations began flowing into Thailand and looking for jobs as migrant laborers.

The recent surge in inflation has also created a devastating economic situation in Burma, further contributing to a rising number of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. They are generally working in factories, fisheries, agriculture, farming, construction, entertainment and domestic sectors. In addition, the military regime’s violations of human rights, which includes rape, torture, imprisonment and the use of forced and unpaid labour, has forced the people to take refuge along the border areas and in neighboring countries, particularly in Thailand.

Estimated number of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand

There are some one and a half million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, as various reports have estimated. In Mae Sot, Tak near the Thai-Burma border, there are some 100,000 Burmese migrants working in various industries, mostly in garment and textile factories. More than 200 garment and textile factories are located in Mae Sot.

Migrant policy of Thailand

Thailand is not a party of the key international conventions concerning international migration, and its domestic policy development is not comprehensive; as a result, its migration policies and programmes are marked by omissions and ambiguities. Government policies in Thailand do not accord full rights to migrant workers, including such basic rights as education, movement and free association. The lack of rights for migrant workers often leads to abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

All workers in Thailand are protected by the National Labor Laws of Thailand, but without registration, employers can have migrants arrested and deported by immigration authorities before the migrants can organize a case against the employer. Migrants are only allowed to work for the employer named on the card, in the place and type of work designated on the card. They are not allowed to change employers unless they are re-registered with a new employer, paying another full registration fee. Migrants are also not allowed to travel in Thailand, registered or not. On paper, Thai and Burmese workers are equal, but in practice, this is far from reality. Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are prohibited by law from forming their own trade unions or acting as union committee members, so basic human rights such as the freedom of association and the right to form trade unions are systematically denied. Consequently, when some problems occur in the factory, workers cannot solve the problem themselves and they have to use the labor mechanism and legal process. While Thailand is seen as one of the more successful economies in Asia, the abhorrent conditions of its migrant workers is comparable to some of the worst in the world.

Thai Registration Policy on Migrant Labor

Since 1996, Thailand has implemented a policy to register illegal migrant workers for a temporary period, and allowed them to renew the registration periods each year in an attempt to regulate migrants who were already in the country. 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 were 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 .Within a month, the initial frenzy of deportations died down. Gradually, Burmese workers came back and business has become normal again.

In August 2000, a Thai cabinet meeting passed a resolution to extend the work permits of migrant workers for one more year. In August 2001, the Royal Thai Government established a registration system for migrant workers from neighbouring countries; some 560,000 workers were subsequently registered. In late 2002, those who originally registered were eligible to re-register, but only 281,162 re-registered. In August 2003, the Thai Labour Minister reported that the cabinet resolved to permit more than 400,000 previously registered migrant workers to continue working in Thailand for one more year. During September 2003, migrant workers who had previously registered could re-register, but those who had never gone through the process or who had lost their jobs were not eligible. Moreover, only migrants working in certain sectors of the economy, including agriculture, factory work, and fisheries, was permitted to re-register. However, this policy has left the new arrivals after 2004 without registration even for a temporary period, and those without temporary work permits become illegal and subject to various abuses by both employers and the local authorities. In addition, registration only takes place twice a year, leaving workers ‘illegal’ throughout much of the year.

There were several flaws in these registration processes, including the fact that if the migrant worker lost his/her job, they became "illegal immigrants" after a period of seven days, and faced arrest, a fine, and deportation. This was particularly arduous for many migrants, as the very nature of their work, whether in agriculture, fisheries, garment factories, or the hospitality industry, meant that they would only be employed on a seasonal basis.

Between 2001 and June 2004, there were no new registrations for new migrant workers. In a major effort to regularize unauthorized migration, the Ministry of Interior registered 1,280,000 workers from neighbouring countries in July 2004. Subsequently, over 817,000 of them paid to enroll in a health insurance scheme and 814,000 applied for work permits. Among those with work permits, 45 per cent are females. About 600,000 of those with work permits are from Myanmar. A Cabinet Decision in May 2005 allowed those migrants who had previously registered with the Ministry of Interior to apply for work permits valid up to June 30, 2006. The total paid in fees for registration are set at 2,450 baht for a 3-month registration period, 2,900 baht for six months, and 3,800 baht for a year (under the old scheme, the yearly fee was 4,450 baht). A potential benefit of the new scheme is that workers could be permitted to change employers. The government’s current registration requires the country of origin to verify the workers’ identities before registering. Only those who can prove their nationality is allowed to work. Nonetheless, the large number of migrants worker from ethnic minorities in Burma who are fleeing economic and political persecution have no identification or citizenship and are unlikely to pass the nationality verification.

The work permits are only for a specific employer, however over 93,000 persons under the age of 15 registered with the Ministry of Interior in 2004. Generally, employers pay for the work permit fees and deduct workers’ wages in monthly installments. Small scale businesses and farms in most cases cannot afford to pay, or simply do not want to pay the permit fee, so workers are left irregular, meaning both employee and employer are subject to harassment and extortion by the police.

Women and children

While children of registered migrants have the right to attend Thai schools, it is thought that only a very small percentage of them are actually receiving any formal or informal education. Many of the older children are believed to be working without permission and often in exploitative situations.

Female domestic workers, registered or not, are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they work in isolation in individual homes. Thai law makes no provision for the rights and labour standards of domestic workers, irrespective of nationality.

According to Amnesty International, both Thai and migrant female workers are frequently dismissed from their jobs if they become pregnant. Female migrant workers often do not receive reproductive health care and so are particularly vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In Mae Sot, Burmese migrant workers have been dismissed from their jobs and deported to Myanmar when they became pregnant. For example, in November 2004, a pregnant migrant worker with two children was deported from Mae Sot to Myawaddy, Myanmar.

Situation in the work place

Many employers also illegally hold their workers’ registration cards so that they cannot leave. A majority of employers hold the original permit, which means workers are often not able to access health care and are subject to deportation, as the photocopy given to them is not recognized by police and immigration.

According to Thai labor law, minimum wage is 145 baht per day (US 3.6 dollar). Factory workers in Mae Sot receive an average wage equivalent to $1.25 per day and for this wage are forced to work 7 days a week from 8:00am until 12:00am or 1:00am with only an hour break for lunch and an hour break for dinner. During the peak production period, workers have to work 16 hours a day. Workers are not allowed to refuse overtime work. Workers are allowed to have only one day off a month. The workers are forced to sleep in factory housing where they often sleep three bunks high, have insufficient and dirty water, poor ventilation and are given inadequate food. There is no occupational safety and health care system for the workers at any work-site. The monthly fees for room rental, electricity, water, and work permit registration are deducted from the workers' salaries by employers.

Whenever there is a problem between owners and workers, the owner solves the problem by expelling the workers who complain about them. They were often punished by their employers if they attempt to organize for better working conditions and rate of pay. Punishments have ranged from beatings by local gangs hired by the employer to mass arrests and deportation to Myanmar by local authorities. In some cases, Burmese migrant workers have been killed and it is believed that their employers are behind those incidents.


In the period of 1999 to 2001, Thai authorities deported 300,000 migrant workers back to their native countries. However, most of these deported workers managed to secretly return to Thailand and continue working, according to Thai officials.

The illegal status of many workers creates fear of deportation. In addition, the language barrier and a corrupt Thai system leave workers subject to the will of their employers. Workers are usually expelled from work at any time for any reason, especially during low production periods.

A wide variety of factors contribute to the vulnerable situation Burmese migrant workers face on a day to day basis, including the constant threat of deportation, both for those with and without work permits, extortion by police and immigration officials, heavy debts to recruiters/traffickers, often leading to bonded labor or similar conditions, restriction on freedom of movement imposed by employers, lack of health care, inability to speak the Thai language and a lack of information or awareness of their basic human and labor rights. Moreover, workers' fundamental human and labor rights to freedom of association, right to organize and collective bargaining are denied to them both in Thai law and in practice.