The Difficulties of Migrant Women
December 17, 2009
WCRP: In January 2007, 17-year-old Ma Than and her best friend Ma Cho, 18-years-old, left Khaya village, Pa-an Township, Karen State, Burma, and travelled to Mahachai Thailand. In hopes of earning better wages and providing for their families, the girls and 3 friends arranged the trip with a local broker. The broker promised them prosperous jobs and charged each 450,000 kyat for travel costs.
When the girls arrived in Mahachai the broker placed them at Wa La Pon, a Thai owned prawn-packaging factory. For 2 years, with a small and inconsistent salary, the girls worked in fear and confusion. “I missed my parents and I wanted to go back to my home, but I could not go, I had no money for travel cost and I was terrified of my boss,” said Ma Than.
Ma Cho and Ma Than shared a small apartment attached to the factory. 7 days a week they worked from 2am to 10pm, yet they received different salaries and often had to pay their boss random fees. Ma Than explained, “We didn’t understand how our boss paid us. He would give me 800 baht for 10 days, but then he’d subtract 500 baht for a work permit card, but I never received a work permit card.”
The factory provided 3 meals a day or employees could cook for themselves and receive a slightly higher salary. Ma Cho cooked her own food and was paid 1200 baht every 10 days and 500 baht was subtracted for a work permit card she never received. Work permit cards cost 3600 baht per year, plus 400 baht for photos and processing fees.
On average, after work permit card fees were subtracted, Ma Cho was earning 2100 baht a month (70 baht a day) and Ma Than Htwe was earning 900 baht a month (30 baht a day). Over the 2 years 12,000 baht was subtracted from each girls salaries for non-existent work permit cards.
Ma Cho, a short and slender girl, expressed frustration over her previous employment, “I worked…but I couldn’t send money to my parents…Before I went there I thought I could support my parents but I had nothing…We had no holiday and no time to relax. If someone felt sick and could not work for 5 days, our boss would subtract 1000 baht from their salary.” Their boss would also demand 200 baht from employees if they forget to wear surgical masks while packaging prawns.
Ma Than and Ma Cho also had problems communicating with their boss. “I cannot speak Thai, so it was very difficult to live in Thailand. When the boss told me to do something I didn’t understand and he would get very angry with me and I was so scared of him,” said Ma Cho.
Their boss regularly controlled whom they contacted and interacted with inside and outside the factory. Ma Than said, “We could not call our relatives or friends because our boss wouldn’t allow us to use the phone. If we called our friends, he assumed we were trying to get new jobs at another factory. We could not talk with each other [during work] because the Thai boss didn’t like it and we couldn’t look at his face, if we did, he’d curse at us.”
Wa La Pon has 600 migrant workers, all are Mon or Burman and only some can speak Thai, but most cannot understand a word. All factory employees work from 2am until 10pm although none have work permit cards or a consistent salary. At a neighbouring factory in Mahachai, employees work from 8am to 8pm 6 days a week, are regularly paid 203 baht per day and long-term employees are paid 240 baht per day.
“There were many problems there. We were always worried that the Thai police would come to check the factory and arrest us, but we could not say anything to our boss because we were terrified of him,” said Ma Than.
During the first week of October 2009, the Thai police came to the factory to check for migrant workers’ work permit cards. Ma Cho and Ma Than still had not received theirs and were, along with several other employees, immediately arrested. The women were detained at the local police station for a couple days and then moved to a safe house outside Bangkok.
After 10 days, the women returned to Mahachai for their court case, where they are still deliberating proceedings. Labour Rights Promotion network (LPN) is helping with translation (Mon to Thai) and when issues are resolved, Ma Than and Ma Cho will return to the safe house to make arrangements for their eventual return to Burma.
“Many migrant women workers are lied to taken advantage of by traffickers and factory owners, not only in Mahachai but in many areas of Thailand. But especially in Mahachai, they need many women…because women can work everywhere, restaurants, brothels, stores, houses, or factories. So many women come to work in Mahachai,” said a member of Rehmonya Labour Union (RLU), an organization that collects data about migrant workers.
In a similar circumstance, 2 Tavoy women were promised well paying jobs in a snack factory, but ended up working for low wages at a Massage parlour, in Ratburi, Thailand. The girls travelled to Thailand with a trafficker in June 2009 and their employer never provided them with work permit cards. Like Ma Than and Ma Cho they were arrested and detained by the Thai police until LPN was notified and could arrange for their release and transportation back to Burma.
As WCRP has repeatedly reported, trafficking of Burmese women to Mahachai and other towns in southern Burma is an increasing problem. There are not enough jobs to support the growing population in Burma and in response many women migrate to Thailand searching for work and a better life.