Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Grass is Greener

The Irrawaddy News

Despite the difficulties and challenges facing Shan migrants seeking work in Thailand, their numbers are increasing

I feel my life in Thailand is more secure than in Burma. It is easier to make a living here,” said Sam Htun, a 56-year-old Shan construction worker, who said he left Burma because of oppression, dangerous working conditions and dismal economic circumstances.

Many Shan migrant workers in Thailand live in makeshift camps. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

Sam Htun earned 10,000 to 20,000 kyat (about US $9 to $18) a month—barely enough to get by—working on construction sites in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. For this, he risked injury daily from hazards like falling objects, exposed wiring and unsafe scaffolding.

“Safety standards on Thai building sites can vary from poor to very high, but in Burma safety is a joke,” Sam said.

In Thailand, Sam can earn around 4,500 baht ($130) a month, from which he usually manages to send back 17,000 kyat ($15) every month to his family.

Some Shan workers do relatively well. Sai Maung, who works as a building subcontractor in Chiang Mai, said he transfers about 100,000 baht ($1,940) each year to his parents in Lang Kho in Shan State.

Of the 2 to 4 million Burmese migrants currently living in Thailand, 500,000 are thought to be ethnic Shan living and working in northern Thailand, according to Burmese and regional labor rights groups.

The Shan in Thailand are one of the largest groups remitting money to their families in Burma. How much they are sending back home is hard to estimate as they tend not to use hundi agents—go-betweens who transfer money to workers’ families in Burma—preferring to entrust their savings with close friends who go back, or take it themselves.

Jackie Pollock, a founder of the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP), a Chiang Mai-based NGO, said migrant workers leave Burma because of poor economic prospects and human rights abuses committed by the Burmese regime.

Sam Htun, center, at a workshop for migrant workers in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/The Irrawaddy)

“Even though the migrants are paid less than the minimum daily wage (about $4.75) and do not have very much freedom in Thailand, it is still more than they would earn in Burma.

“In Thailand, if you get a decent employer, then you may make quite a reasonable salary. There is no chance of this in Burma,” she said.

Migrants have the chance to complain and can resort to the Thai legal system, but if they are exploited and abused by their employers in Burma, “they can do nothing,” Pollock said, adding that abuse in Burma can include extortionate taxes, forced labor and land confiscation.

Labor rights observers say that, while Shan workers want to escape oppression in Burma, the availability of work and the higher wages offered in Thailand are major incentives, and migrants are prepared to pay considerable amounts to get across the border.

Sai Maung said four relatives who had arrived in Chiang Mai in late 2008 had to pay 100,000 kyat ($90) each to authorities and militias for their trip to Thailand.

Sein Kyi, editor of the Chiang Mai-based Shan Herald Agency for News, said at least 200 Shan migrant workers with border passes cross daily into Thailand, using the bridge between Tachilek in Shan State and Mae Sai in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province. Many others, however, cross illegally.

Illegal migrant workers not only have to bribe the Burmese army, but also the armed groups whose territories they must cross on their journey to Thailand. Both the Shan State Army and United Wa State Army are said to be involved in the smuggling process. A one-way trip reportedly costs around 10,000 to 11,000 baht ($290 to $320). When they get to Thailand the migrants then have to pay the Thai authorities.

Andy Hall, the migrant justice program director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which focuses on migrant safety in the workplace, said, “The migration will surely go on as Thailand still needs workers—perhaps another 2 or 3 million more.”

Culture also plays a role. “Shan migrant workers are very special for Thai employers because their language is similar to Northern Thai, and their culture is very close to the Thai culture,” Hall said.

However, once the migrants have arrived in Thailand, their troubles are far from over.

“Some of the riskiest work for migrants in Thailand is in the construction industry, where substandard safety procedures often lead to accidents,” said Hall, adding that little if any compensation is paid in such circumstances.

Sai Leng, who is the chairman of the Kuang Gor camp for Shan refugees in Chiang Mai’s Wieng Heng District, said Shan migrants take jobs that Thai people do not want because the work is difficult, dirty and dangerous, and the pay is low.

Kuang Gor camp is home to more than 600 Shan who are not officially refugees, but who are allowed to work outside the camp. Kuang Gor is assisted by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which supplies basic foods such as rice, cooking oil, salt and yellow beans to the migrants.

Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the TBBC, said the camp’s Shan occupants do not have proper protection and risk arrest and repatriation.

Unlike refugees in the nine other camps along the Thai-Burmese border, the Shan in Kuang Kor are not treated as refugees and have no chance of resettlement in third countries because they are not registered with the Thai Ministry of Interior and the UNHCR, Thompson said.

“They aren’t just vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation at any time. Unlike properly registered refugees, they have no access to health care, and their children don’t get any education,” said Thompson.

Jackie Pollock described how MAP had helped a Shan migrant after he was caught in a police sweep at a building site in Chiang Mai.

“First, his wife had to go to her husband’s employer to get his papers, but he wouldn’t give them to her unless she paid him 2,000 baht [$60]. When she showed them at the police station, the police weren’t interested.

“They kept him in jail for 48 days, which is the legal maximum they could hold him without charges, before releasing him—and he was a registered migrant worker, not an illegal,” said Pollock.

Pollock described how it was common practice for the police to round up all workers in a sweep, whether registered or not, and put them in jail. The migrant workers are encouraged to pay “fines” if they want to get back quickly to their families and work.

Sai Leng said arrest is a big threat facing migrant workers in daily life. If arrested, they have to pay relatively large amounts of money to be released.

“We want the Thai authorities to make it easier for the migrant worker to travel from one place to another. If they treated us migrants better, they would get more work out of us,” he said.

Despite enjoying a better life in Thailand, Sai Leng said he still hoped to go back to his hometown in Burma when conditions improve.

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