Economic crisis hits Myanmar's migrant women
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - The global financial crisis threatens to shred the dreams of
thousands of women from Myanmar who have fled their military-ruled country over
the past decade for better jobs in more prosperous Thailand, say activists.
Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Myanmar border that has been a magnet for female
migrant workers, is one area where this pain is being felt, they said. Ongoing
conflicts between the military and ethnic groups and a depressed economy in
Myanmar are among the reasons behind such flight across the border.
"There is growing worry among these women that they will not be able to remit
part of their earnings to their families in Myanmar," says Jackie Pollock,
director of the Migrant Action Program, a group lobbying for migrants' rights
in Thailand. "Entire families
depend on such remittances, which are about 2,500 baht [US$75] every quarter."
She expects this predicament to worsen as the crisis, which has resulted in the
drying up of export markets in the United States, unfolds in the months ahead.
"It is just starting to hit them. The families in Myanmar are living off what
was saved from last year's remittances."
The economic downturn is squeezing a female labor force that is already being
discriminated against by the factory owners, mostly Thais, who refuse to pay
the daily minimum wage. The Myanmarese women who labor for hours behind sewing
machines get between 60 baht and 80 baht a day, whereas the minimum wage set
out by the Thai state for Mae Sot is 151 baht a day.
These women make up the predominant labor force in the nearly 300
export-oriented textile and garment factories in Mae Sot, reveals a report
released on Friday in Bangkok. Each factory employs 100 to 1,000 workers, while
"about another 200 unregistered 'home factories' would employ between five and
20 workers," says the report.
This female labor force is part of the estimated 300,000 Myanmarese migrant
workers in Mae Sot, which also provides work in other areas. That includes jobs
in agriculture, construction, domestic work, call centers, the entertainment
industry and on garbage sites.
In all these fields of labor, "women are shouldering a disproportionate
burden", says Soe Lin Aung, co-author of the 48-page report, "Critical Times -
Migrants and the Economy in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot". "A substantial number of
women we surveyed - 43% - reported a drop in their incomes."
"Knitting factories, which produce warm clothing largely for very hard-hit US
and European markets, are said to be struggling disproportionately, with demand
dropping steeply," states the report. "The local chapter of the Federation of
Thai Industries claims that orders have dropped by 12%, and 'the talk', as one
report puts it, is of overwhelming layoffs, reduced working hours and increased
difficulty finding new jobs."
The average monthly income for a worker in such factories hovers close to 2,500
baht, with only regular shifts available. Yet "at this time last year, which is
a relatively high season, a knitting factory employee might have made 6,000
baht a month, while a garment factory worker would have made a bit more than
3,000 baht, including overtime hours," adds the report.
One female migrant worker interviewed for the report said, "I can't support my
parents because I'm not in a good job situation. My brother and sister are also
not okay - they also can't support with any money."
The money sent home by the migrant workers has become a vital lifeline for the
families they have left behind, most of whom are elderly fathers and mothers
and children too young to work.
"Over 30 people have come to work in Thailand from my village," said Deng
Lungjong, who works in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, another magnet for
her compatriots in search of jobs.
"There are six people in my village that are depending on the money I remit
home," the 26-year-old said in an interview. "Earlier I could remit money four
times a year; now I can only send twice a year."
The migrant workers in Mae Sot and Chiang Mai are among an estimated two
million registered and unregistered migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and
Laos in Thailand. They labor in work described by labor rights groups as
"dirty, dangerous and difficult." The majority of them - over one million - are
The plight of the migrant workers in Mae Sot and other parts of Thailand
feeling the economic pain hardly surprises the International Labor Organization
(ILO). "All too often migrant workers in poorly visible categories of work tend
to be the shock absorbers during an economic downturn," says Tim De Meyer,
labor standards specialist at the Bangkok-based Asia office of the ILO.
The Geneva-based body had the female migrant workers from Myanmar in mind when
it said earlier this year that the current economic meltdown had a "woman's
face", since women laborers are affected more severely, and differently,
compared with their male counterparts.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the ILO projected that as more people became
unemployed, the total number of people in the region without jobs could be
pushed to 112.2 million.
The hit taken by women in this dire picture stems from the work they do: often
in labor-intensive export industries like the ones in Mae Sot.
A similar scenario played out a decade ago, when Southeast Asia was hit by the
1997 financial crisis, decimating once vibrant, export-driven economies. In
Thailand, for instance, 95% of the workers laid off from the garment sector
were women, according to the ILO.
Despite this repeating itself in places like Mae Sot, the female migrants from
Myanmar are reluctant to return home. "While the situation may be getting bad
here, the situation is worse in Myanmar," said Deng, who has been working in
Thailand for 10 years. "My family at home has only me to depend on."