Deadly struggle for migrants in Thailand
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - The death by suffocation last week of 54 migrant workers from
Myanmar, while being transported in an enclosed container truck in southern
Thailand, was a tragedy waiting to happen say labor rights activists.
The victims, whose bodies were found when the cramped truck was opened late
Wednesday night, were among a group of 122 people from Myanmar who had slipped
into Thailand to secure jobs in the resort areas of Phang-nga and Phuket. The
dead included 36 women, 17 men and an eight-year-old girl.
Survivors told the Thai media that the only air that circulated in the sealed
truck was through an air-conditioning system. But a short distance into the
journey, the flow of air dropped and breathing
became difficult, they added. Banging on the sides of the truck had failed to
draw the driver's attention. The latter fled the scene after he eventually
stopped the truck and discovered what had happened to the migrants.
"This is the largest number of deaths of Burmese migrant workers we have
recorded in one incident," said Htoo Chit, director of Grassroots Human Rights
Education and Development, a Burmese migrant rights group based in Phang-nga.
"What happened is very sad, but these kind of terrible deaths of migrant
workers happen often in Thailand."
"I am not surprised with this tragedy," he added in a telephone interview from
the south. "Similar trucks are used to move migrant workers to places in Phuket
and Phang-nga where they are needed. Even open trucks that can take about 20
people comfortably are packed with 50 or 60 people."
The International Labor Organization (ILO) concurs. "This tragic accident
reveals a problem that goes much deeper. It was a tragedy waiting to happen,"
Bill Salter, the ILO's sub-regional director for East Asia, told Inter Press
Service. "There are networks involved in the movement of migrant works in some
instances. Some cases are outright trafficking."
The tragedy follows the deaths of 22 migrant workers from Myanmar who had
drowned in December last year in Ranong, a province north of Phang-nga and
close to the Thai-Myanmar border. And the month before, in November, eight
Burmese migrant workers were killed in an accident on the road in Petchaburi
province, southwest of Bangkok.
The migrants who were being trucked on Wednesday to the two resort provinces
along the Andaman coast were following a route that tens of thousands of others
from the military-ruled country had taken before them. They are drawn to work
in jobs described as "dirty and dangerous" in the fisheries industry,
construction sector and in plantations such as rubber and palm oil.
Migrant labor from Myanmar has been the main work force behind the construction
of the many hotels that dot the beaches of Phang-nga and Phuket, mainstays of
Thailand's vibrant tourist industry. In the fisheries sector, the men are
employed on the boats that go out to sea, while the women work in factories to
process the catch from the nearby ocean.
"There is a lot of exploitation in the fisheries sector. The Burmese have to
work for long hours and with low pay," said Sutphiphong Khongkathon, southern
field coordinator for the Migrant Action Program Foundation (MAP Foundation), a
non-governmental organization (NGO). "Nearly 80% of the Burmese migrant workers
are not registered workers in the fisheries sector. And Thai labor law does not
offer any protection for them."
In the recent months, "more and more Burmese are coming for jobs despite the
heavy costs", Sutphiphong said in an interview. "They have been given the
impression that they can work legally here at some point. That is a wrong
Fueling this exodus is military-ruled Myanmar's steadily declining economies,
prompting people from a broad range of sectors to leave. The violence the
Myanmar junta has unleashed on the country's ethnic minorities has also driven
people across the border to a more prosperous Thailand.
In 2007, reports by Thai labor officials and NGOs estimated that there were
close to 2 million migrant workers in Thailand, some 75% of whom were from
Myanmar, while the rest came from Cambodia and Laos. But only 500,000 of them
registered last year with the Labor Department during an annual process that
seeks to give the migrants documents to work and enjoy health benefits.
The sectors across Thailand in which migrant workers are employed - due to a
reluctance by Thais to labor in such fields due to low pay - are agriculture,
construction, fish processing, domestic workers, the garment sector and in
mines. Besides the south, large pockets of migrant workers are found in Mae
Sot, along Thailand's north-western border with Myanmar.
And according to a study done by the ILO, the migrants contribute substantially
to the Thai economy. "If migrants are as productive as Thai workers in each
sector, their total contribution to output should be in the order of US$11
billion, or about 6.2% of Thailand's gross domestic product [GDP]," states the
findings in a report released last December, "The Contribution of Migrant
Workers to Thailand: Towards Policy Development."
"If they were less productive [say 75% of Thai worker output] their
contribution would still be in the order of $8 billion, or 5% percent of GDP,"
it added. "Migrants contribute anywhere from 7% to 10% of value added in
industry, and 4% to 5% of value added in agriculture."
Yet, migrant workers from Myanmar are hardly treated with respect. Even a range
of laws introduced by Bangkok to guarantee the rights and welfare of the
migrants has not made a dent. "Part of the problem is the way migrant workers
are perceived. Large number of the public perceive the migrants in a negative
way," said ILO's Salter.
Consequently, it leaves the migrants open to abuse be it at work or when being
transported, as happened last Wednesday. "A lot of people are to blame for the
abuse, the public, employers and even officials, like the police," said
Sutphiphong of MAP Foundation. "There were some employers behind the network
that transported the Burmese this week in that closed truck. Even the local
police are behind them."