(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Deaths of Myanmar workers highlight migrant labour problems

A farmer and his son in their ox cart in poverty-stricken Myanmar.
Wikimedia Commons

The deaths on 9 April of 54 illegal migrant workers from Myanmar, who suffocated in the back of a container truck while being smuggled to the Thai resort island of Phuket, highlight the vulnerability of foreign migrant labourers in Thailand, said UN International Labour Organization (ILO) officials.

The victims - 36 women and 17 men, all apparently in their late teens or early 20s, and an eight-year-old child – were among 121 Myanmar citizens crammed into the back of a freezer-truck, normally used for carrying seafood.

Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai, a senior Thai police officer, told IRIN the migrants perished on a four-to-five hour journey from Ranong, a seaport on the Thai-Myanmar border, to Phuket, where illegal workers from Myanmar serve as a cheap source of labour for the construction, seafood and tourism industries.

He said 67 survivors, some children, are in hospital or in Thai police custody. The survivors will be held as witnesses, he said, to testify against the driver of the truck, who is now being sought, before they are deported to Myanmar for illegally entering Thailand.

Allan Dow, a communications officer with the ILO’s anti-trafficking programme, told IRIN the deaths reflect the precarious position of migrant workers from Myanmar, who cross the porous border into Thailand in search of jobs.

“While this can be seen as a tragic accident, or a criminal negligence case, this is a consequence of bigger problems,” said Dow. “The bigger problem is that the number of people trying to come to get jobs here - and the number of employers who want them - are not able to do so through legal channels,” he said.

Deepening poverty

According to UN officials and NGO workers, poverty is deepening in Myanmar principally due to an economy in disarray and in part because of sanctions.

The lack of job opportunities, as well as ongoing conflict in some ethnic minority border areas, has pushed an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million citizens into Thailand, where labour experts say they usually toil at below minimum wage.

The ILO estimates that about 6 percent of Thailand’s GDP is generated by foreign workers, the vast majority of whom come from Myanmar. Yet despite this, the Thai army and security establishment views the Myanmar workers as potential security threats, according to Philip Robertson Jr, a Bangkok-based labour rights advocate.

“The government policy is a compromise between the employer and the national security people,” Robertson said.

Climate of exploitation

Dow said two of the ILO’s studies found that most Thais believe foreign labourers should not be entitled to the same rights and protection as Thai workers, attitudes that have created a climate of tolerance for the pervasive exploitation and mistreatment of workers from Myanmar.

“Foreign workers are not treated the same as Thai workers and they should be,” Dow said. “In many cases, employers are breaking Thai law. All workers are supposed to be treated the same. But our research found that many of the foreign workers are underpaid, overworked, and overlooked by the authorities,” he said. 



Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 2004, Bangkok registered more than 1 million foreign workers, who were granted temporary identity cards that were supposed to afford them legal status, health insurance, and protection from harassment. But according to Robertson, many of the migrant workers declined to renew their registration, due to the high cost and rules that tied their legal status to remaining in the same job.

Manolo Abella, an ILO expert on labour migration, said the Thai and Myanmar governments have been trying to create a formal government-to-government channel to regulate the flow of migrant labour. But he said negotiations have stalled on several points, including questions over the status of the million-plus Myanmar workers already in Thailand.

However, there are hopes that this week’s tragic deaths may prompt Thai policy-makers to re-evaluate their policies towards migrant labourers.

“For too long we have turned a blind eye to human trafficking,” The Nation newspaper, a Bangkok daily, wrote on 11 April. “How we treat others says something about us as a country, as a society. Let’s hope this tragedy is a wake-up call for the Thai government.”

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