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Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand Demand Greater Rights Protection

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By NYEIN NYEIN 19 December 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Nine years ago, Nang Kham Sein left her native Shan State’s Kunlon Township with her parents for northern Thailand in search of better incomes, leading them to work in masonry.

As a construction worker, she recalls working under difficult and dangerous conditions while she was carrying her child.

“I had to carry heavy things, as such iron rods, in the workplace when I was seven months pregnant,” she said. But now she explains that because she is aware of her labor rights, she manages to avoid work under such conditions.

Participating in a gathering to mark the International Migrants Day in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Nang Kham Sein was one of over 170 migrant workers and labor rights experts present at the two-day event. She expressed concern for a lack of social security benefits, linked to low enrollment of migrant workers by employers in the system which would grant them work permit documentation and registration.

“We have to hire agents who act as the employers, but those people cannot guarantee us social benefits,” said Nang Kham Sein.

She is one of the estimated several million Burmese nationals currently in Thailand facing hardship due to a lack of access to labor protection: migrant workers struggle with low pay, travel restrictions, and the high cost in obtaining official permits so that both they and their family members can live and work securely.

“We want full labor rights and protections. Burmese workers are still not getting the minimum daily wage yet, and there is still lack of access to free travel,” said Htong Kham, a consultant with the Chiang Mai-based Workers Solidarity Association (WSA). WSA is part of the 15-member Northern Labor Network in Thailand.

Earlier this year, Thailand shifted from the previous “migrant passport”—introduced in 2009—to a “pink card,” which restricts migrant workers’ ability to travel between Thailand’s provinces.

Recently, Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to help address the challenges faced by Burmese nationals in Thailand and to negotiate with the Thai department of labor.

This month, the migrants who still have a valid passport will be able extend their visas without being forced to change to the pink card system, according to Brahm Press, the director of MAP Foundation, an organization which supports and advocates on behalf of migrant workers in Thailand. However, there remains no clear course of action for resolving the complaints of those who have recently obtained pink cards.

The two-day International Migrants Day event resulted in several recommendations for both the Thai and Burmese governments to ensure that the rights of migrant workers are better protected.

The WSA’s Htong Kham added that that both the Burmese and Thai governments should “collaborate” to help vulnerable workers, regardless of their legal status.

The recommendations went on to detail the need for the Thai government to ratify several articles of International Labor Organization conventions on promoting worker rights, protecting worker safety and fighting exploitation.

“We do not want any more exploitative agents. Also, we are now hearing that the Thai authorities will not extend stay-permits for elders who are over 55 years old. My mother is going to be over 55 soon, and I do not want that to happen,” Nang Kham Sein said.

The workers demanded that the Burmese labor attaché be directly involved in the monitoring of labor conditions for Burmese nationals in Thailand, and that their complaints of abuses be treated equally, regardless of ethnicity or legal status. They also want the Burmese government to ensure their civic and social rights, including access to household registration, education, and public and occupational heath.

The MAP Foundation’s Brahm Press said that he hoped Thailand and Asean would combat international trends toward xenophobia and racism which have been noted in the US, Europe and parts of Asia.

“We want to see improved relations bilaterally. We want to see that the host society welcomes migrant workers and [is] more inclusive, rather than exclusive. That means we want migrants to have an opportunity to fulfill their aspirations and capabilities, not live under the current situations where they are discriminated against [because of] their nationalities or ethnicities and are limited to unskilled labor,” Press explained.