Monday, June 1, 2009

Recession bites: compounding misery for migrants

By Joseph A. Allchin

(DVB)–The economic recession became real to Yomana in March. Seven years of working up to 13 hours a day came to an end when, like most in his garment factory, he was laid off.

His story could prove quintessentially 21st Century. Yomana (not his real name) joins approximately 4000 factory workers in Mae Sot, on the Thai-Burma border, who have lost their jobs in recent months as a result of the recession. But according to Moe Swe of Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association (YCOWA) the recession has come late to Mae Sot precisely because the wages are so suppressed here. Despite this Moe Swe estimates that as many as 12 factories have closed.

Yomana’s days of toil were rewarded invariably with less than the Thai minimum wage, and his overtime went unpaid. A thirteen-hour day therefore could result in him being paid under US$2. The conditions were exacerbated by a system that, whilst relieving great desperation in the first place, verges on bonded labour.

As a farmer in Mon state, Burma, he left his lands as erosion ate into his dozen acres of rice paddy; a peril that will perhaps come to inflict many this century as a result of global warming. His journey was orchestrated by brokers, who for a large fee escorted him and his young family the short distance over the border into Mae Sot.

Arriving in Thailand illegally puts workers in Mae Sot in a particularly difficult place. According to Thetis Managahas of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), there is very little that the Thai authorities can do to regulate migrant workers; they arrive from Burma with no documentation.

As such, businesses in Mae Sot are able to pay pitiful wages, ones that would not be paid to Thais, and the local authorities and the business community enjoy what Mangahas terms a ‘built-in relationship’, and turn a blind eye. Moe Swe of YCOWA confirms this relationship, saying that “everybody knows that workers in Mae Sot are exploited but nobody does anything”.

The ugly truth is that the commodity of cheap labour is treated as such, with workers reporting suffocating factory floors with little fresh air and intense pressure to produce more. These conditions encourage injury and accident. All ‘wastage’ must come out of the pitiful wages, and workers speak of being punished or threatened with violence from factory bosses.

The majority of Burmese migrants are forced to stay in Mae Sot. Few towns outside of war zones can have quite such strict departure measures. On leaving the town on the main road away from the border, one is liable to pass through as many as five different army checkpoints where Burmese are systematically targeted. ‘Fees’ to leave and travel freely in Thailand can be paid, but would dwarf most salaries.

An overarching responsibility for the worker is also placed on the employer in Thailand, putting the lives of workers such as Yomana in the hands of their employers. He says his bosses would levy ‘security’ charges out of wages and look after their work permits. Fees are also often levied for food and other things, giving bosses an almost parental control over workers. Inspections are rare and, according to Moe Swe, done as part of the ‘cosy’ relationship, with hand-picked workers reportedly rolled out for the inspectors.

Thai law further forbids migrant workers the right to unionise. Whilst they are allowed to join Thai unions, none are present in Mae Sot purely because there are so few Thai workers here.

All this makes for suffocating working conditions before the recession, and with the rise in the value of the Burmese currency, the Kyat, things were tough enough. As a footnote, the rise of the value of Kyat occurred partly as a result of a sudden influx of aid money in the wake of cyclone Nargis. This makes the hope of sending remittances back to impoverished family members even more unlikely.

As the recession bit and orders dried up, Yomana’s job ended. A few remained in the factory who would work even longer hours for even less remuneration and, as the desperation mounted, workers further undercut each other. He now takes daily wage labour work, when it comes - he gets a few days work a month and is sheltered by an NGO. Every now and then, particularly in these tough economic times, the Thai police erect check points or go house-to-house, factory-to-factory, rounding up the ‘aliens’ in what Mangahas describes as a “nice political release”; essentially a proverbial scapegoat.

Transnational economic migrants are an essential plank of the Thai and global economies. The Federation for Thai Industry acknowledge the value of the foreign currency that the rock bottom wages in Mae Sot bring into the Thai economy. Yet their labour here is rewarded with subsistence wages, no security and backbreaking work at the best of times.

In other parts of the world they call such a space an ‘export processing zone’ or a ‘special economic zone’; a space where regulations and taxes are particularly favourable to business. Mae Sot is such a space with only semi-official recognition and no fancy acronym to conceal the money-making that feeds off desperation.

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