CHIANG RAI – Recent reforms in Burma have not stopped thousands of migrant workers moving to Thailand in search of work. International workers organisations estimate that more than 2 million Burmese migrants have come to Thailand in search of better paid work.
It is estimated that in some villages in Karen State, that as many as 80% of young and middle-aged men and women have left. Locals claim the drain off young people out of Karen villages on the Thai Burma border, has reduced village populations of young people, that once numbered between 100 and 200, to as low as 10.
Many of these villagers have left because of economic hardship, the high cost of living and low wages or the corrupt political situation in their homeland.
In an interview with Karen News, a young migrant worker from Lamphan village in Kyain Sikgyi Township, who asked not to be named, said that the majority of young people in his village left to seek work in Thailand.
“There are almost no young people in our village now. They have all gone to work [in Thailand]. My village is very quiet now. As a young person, I don’t find it exciting to live there anymore, so I have decided to find work here [in Thailand] as well.”
Grandma Nan Tar Moo Gyi, is 65 and was looking forward to an easier life in her old age, that was until her son and daughter left to work in Thailand and left their children behind for her to look after.
Grandma Nan Tar Moo Gyi lives in Hpa-an, Karen State and says she now has her hands full looking after her two grandchildren.
“Their parents left them with me when the [older] child was four months old. Now the child is almost seven years old. Their parents went to Bangkok to find money.”
This is not the first time that Grandma Tar Moo Gyi has had to look after her grandchildren while their parents worked in Thailand as this is the second lot of grandchildren that she is taking care of.
“When I was taking care of the first bunch, their parents didn’t need to send money home as I could still work and earn enough to raise them. Now, as I can’t work anymore, their parents have to send me 100,000 kyat [$100 USD] a month. Actually, one hundred thousand kyat is not enough. The price of milk, medicine and school fees for the children cost a lot more. The children get sick and need to see a doctor quite often. So, it is not enough for these expenses – we are in debt.”
At her age, grandma Nan Tar Moo Gyi said that she wants her children to come back from Thailand to care for their kids, but she is reluctant to ask them as the family has a lot of debts to pay back.
Speaking to Karen News, Nan Tar Moo Gyi said.
“I am thinking to ask my children to come back from Bangkok – they also would like to do so. But how are we going to deal with all the debts if they come back? Just the interest [on the debt] is a lot of money.”
Although Thailand increased the minimum wage to 300 baht (US$ 10) a day in 2012, most migrant workers receive less than 250 baht. Despite the better wages, the cost of living is expensive for migrant workers. They cannot earn enough to save – just enough to live on.
Poe Kay, 50, is a Karen construction worker. He has been working in Thailand for more 20 years and said that life is hard.
“Work and life in Thailand is not easy. I work to get some money and then I’d get sick and my money is spent on healthcare. I cannot save any money. I have lived in Thailand for more than 20 years already. I have never gone back to my village.”
Workers who attempt to find employment in Thailand through labor brokers face more pressing problems. Broker fees can run between 5,000 baht and 12,000 baht. Many cases of abuse at the hands of brokers or employers in Thailand have been reported, with young women particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The Migrant Worker Right Network (MWRN) has criticized the Burma and Thailand’s National Verification process for leaving migrant workers open to exploitation at the hands of corrupt brokers.
Many of these workers are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse in the workplace and a lack of job security. The situation has been hampered by both the Burma and Thai government’s inability to deliver a clear migration policy framework even though a National Verification process (NV) for migrant workers has been in place for 11 years.
In spite of the gradual rollout of the NV scheme, migrant workers are paying as much as five times what the process should legally cost due to broker charges.
Burma and Thailand agreed that migrant workers must pay 1,050 baht (US$3.3) to complete the NV process. Yet the Migrant Workers Right Network said that when broker charges and “under the table” costs are added up, each worker spent 5,500 to 12,000 baht (US$180-400) for getting a temporary passport and work permit.
With 1.7 million migrants completing the process this means brokers, agencies and officials through exploitation and corruption have already made at least 5,100 million baht (US$170 million) from the NV process. At the same time, low-income earning migrant workers have found themselves in “more debt, often leading to severe debt bondage, and seen their savings decline.”