Cross Ethnic Integration in the Andaman (CEIA)
By Jane Rasbash
They may leave Myanmar willingly yet most migrant workers are treated as commodities trafficked to fulfil orders from employers with little access to rights and entitlements. As South East Asia moves towards ASEAN with freedom of movement for workers CEIA are working in five southern Thai provinces working towards migrant worker empowerment.
Unregistered, unrecognized and unable to ask for help migrant workers from Myanmar (Burma) were last in line for relief efforts after the tsunami hit the Andaman coast of Thailand in December 2004. Migrants working in the hotel construction and fishing industries fared particularly badly. Six months after the tsunami Abbot of a Thai monastery acting as a depository for bodies held in refrigerated containers said the vast majority were Burmese, most likely unregistered and no-one to identify them. After the tsunami Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation (SNF) a Thai NGO arranged for Myanmar monks to offer Buddhist ritual to support the grieving process. Word spread fast and the monks drew thousands of migrant worker when they held ceremonies. Some engaged Buddhist monks introduced community organization to mobilize migrant workers who faced difficult conditions from employers, brokers and government officials. In 2008, in partnership with Ecologia Youth Trust and funded by the Big Lottery Fund, SNF initiated an ongoing programme to empower migrant workers, address the inequalities faced and the deeply embedded racism in both Thai and Myanmar people. Coordinated by CEIA a branch of SNF the programme contributed to bring human trafficking issues to the National Thai Agenda. This was largely through advocacy efforts for relatives of victims of a high profile incident in April 2008. 54 migrant workers suffocated in a lorry in Ranong whilst being trafficked from Myanmar to an employer in Phuket who had put in an order for workers.
The programme also supports the emergence of migrant worker groups and networks to access rights, interact fairly with government officers and negotiate with employers. CEIA also initiated several legal kiosks and clinics where migrant workers get advice from lawyers and an emergent Andaman Lawyer network working with both Thai and Myanmar lawyers to further address injustices.
Southern Migrant Centre, Phang Nga
Up a rough track behind the near-by tourist beaches of Khao Lak another world exists. In a shanty hamlet where migrant workers live a small library building proudly displays the SMC – Southern Migrant Centre banner. A strategy of these marginalised groups is to use innocuous libraries for community organising so the more radical activities are less obvious to authorities and employers who want to keep migrant workers under their control. SMC is a hub of activity with computer, legal, health-care and Thai/English language training as well as social/cultural events. SMC have connected with the Labour Department, near-by hospitals and schools to access informal education and healthcare. There is a bi-monthly legal clinic where CEIA lawyers advise migrant workers exploited by employers and local officials. As well as work place mistreatment there are trafficking issues and registration challenges. A migrant worker mentioned:
There can be problems because our contract is for a specific task e.g. rubber tree cutting then the employer asks you to do something else or moves you to a different area so you do it then the police harass you and ask for money because you should not be doing that job or be in that place.
SMC and CEIA are lobbying for improved registration conditions to expand areas migrant workers can work in and the types of work they are allowed to do. The SMC vision is to be an inspiring beacon for migrant workers in Southern Thailand. It was encouraging to see hope in their eyes and strength in their voices as they told us of their efforts.
Migrant Worker Development Association, Ranong (MWDA)
If we can strengthen communities we may not need to expand our work
MWDA is a well-established group with around 160 migrant worker members based in Ranong Town. With the Myanmar Border a 20-minute boat ride away they offer support to new and returning migrant workers as well as those working in Ranong Province. They have a strong networking base linking with migrant workers around Thailand and are interested in spreading awareness on ASEAN as the majority of MWs don’t know about this. In partnership with CEIA and World Vision MWDA run a Legal Clinic with Myanmar and Thai lawyers to support migrant workers and provide human rights information. The most important impact of CEIA on MWDA is the legal advice and training for migrant workers. They now know their rights and are able to make choices. They understand what ASEAN is and their upcoming rights to move freely to other countries
Plan Toys Migrant Worker Group, Trang
The eco-friendly migrant worker accommodation and library where we met the Plan Toys migrant workers group were sure signs this is not a run of the mill employer. The ‘natural air cooling’ system designed by the factory and special roofing material mean the buildings stay cooler unlike sweltering under corrugated iron that is the usual migrant worker plight. Plan Toys are an eco social enterprise and exemplary employer who make eco-toys from recycled rubber wood in a state of the art factory outside Trang. They employ over 800 workers including some 150 migrant workers mainly from Myanmar. The vibrant workers group is well organised with 42 members. The small library is a hub for activities including training, coordination between workers and Plan Toy management, cultural activities and networking with workers from other factories. The library has educational and dharma books as well as novels. The migrant workers download books and make CDs for workers who cannot read. The factory supports local festivals that workers organise themselves inviting workers from near-by factories. At Sonkran (Thai New Year) the workers invited a Myanmar Buddhist Monk to lead ceremonies.
Bi-monthly a CEIA Thai Lawyer runs an informal legal kiosk at the library to advise workers. Issues addressed include sick pay, time-keeping concerns and education on rights and entitlements. The offer to bring a Myanmar Lawyer to give legal support and update about the situation in Myanmar was met with great interest Plan Toys have good policies the migrant workers are on minimum wage (300 baht per day) same as Thai workers, have free accommodation (3 to a room in the eco-huts) and can speak out at factory meetings (through translation). The factory set up a fishpond and organic vegetable gardens that are cared for by the migrant workers. A few migrant workers are permitted to attend regional and national CBO summits. CEIA are working with the Plan Toys migrant workers and management group to facilitate an ‘in house’ Workers Association that has potential to reach out to other near-by factories. It is encouraging that migrant workers are empowered to negotiate with the management and meeting with a reasonable response. However there is some way to go according to a migrant worker:
“We feel equal in work but not outside work — factory policy is good but not the personal attitudes of Thai staff”
CEIA are considering a joint Thai / Myanmar focus group to address the deeply embedded negative perceptions. It is a long slow process for attitudinal change and significant in the Trang vicinity migrant worker issues are also being picked up by community radio stations and the local authority is piloting supporting health care access for migrant workers.
Migrant Worker CBO Networks
Migrant Workers organise themselves in different kinds of groups like SMC and Plan Toys. In Phang Nga there are also several Cremations Groups. These gritty groups have sprung up in response to fights and killings over gambling, debts and other conflicts that proliferate in some of the rough construction sites and fishing piers where migrant workers live and work. They collect and care for bodies found enabling proper Buddhist funeral rites for some of more than 100 unfortunate workers who have died in the last two years. It is not enough for these groups to work in isolation. In Phang Nga led by SMC the first migrant worker CBO network was formed with Cremations Groups and work related / library groups linking together to support each other. Their vision is an international network where migrant workers from Myanmar can collaborate and look after each other in the ASEAN era. CEIA include migrant workers representing the network in local and national advocacy creating a channel for their voices to influence opinion. Some attended the ASEAN and International Labour Organisation (ILO) meetings on migrant worker issues sharing about their situation. In a significant statement of empowerment it was encouraging to hear one of the migrant workers say –
“We were not afraid when we joined the ILO meeting in Bangkok even though we are migrant workers!”
These meetings are campaigning for ratification of ILO 87 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise and ILO 98 Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention. By having the right to organise themselves migrant workers are empowered to stand up for their rights. Through CEIA migrant workers are in dialogue with the Phuket Trade Unions who have agreed to advise migrant worker networks and are planning to set up a pilot legal clinic. They are also advising the Plan Toy Workers Association on employer-employee relations. One migrant worker said –
“Some employers treat us badly and we cannot stand the conditions; however we now realise that when ASEAN comes there will be the option to move to other countries or return to Burma where the situation is improving.”
It was encouraging to hear them really questioning whether it is worth to stay in Thailand – they are empowered and educated to consider options and realise how difficult their situation is.
Thai – Myanmar Lawyer Network –Kaw Thaung
Perhaps the most surprising support mechanism for migrant workers to access rights and entitlements is the emergent Thai – Myanmar Lawyer Network. Kaw Thaung in southern Myanmar is a short, bumpy boat ride from Ranong and the CEIA made the crossing to meet with Myanmar lawyers, law students, the President of the Provincial Lawyer Association and the Provincial Prosecutor. The Myanmar officials told us there had been a Thai/Myanmar Business network but not lawyers. They agreed that as Myanmar opens up and the upcoming ASEAN era it is a good time to initiate cross border lawyer collaboration and for Myanmar lawyers to become part of the emergent CEIA Andaman lawyer network. It is very helpful to Migrant Workers to have access to lawyers from both Thailand and Myanmar. Migrant workers need support before they leave Myanmar to prepare them and after they return to deal with issues faced. There also needs to be accurate information available in Thai and Myanmar languages in Kaw Thuang and Ranong and actions agreed included dual language information on law relating to migrant workers in Thailand, widely available helpline numbers and human trafficking training for migrant workers before they leave Kaw Thaung.
Next Steps – Cross Border Initiatives Supporting ASEAN workers
As ASEAN becomes established in 2015 the time is ripe for initiatives supporting rights and entitlements for migrant workers. A cross border lawyer network working closely with the emerging migrant worker networks is an exciting example of mechanisms that can reduce the injustices economic migrants face. As a significant next step CEIA invited the Myanmar officials and lawyers to Ranong for training and further discussion to establishing the lawyer network and further develop cross border legal support for migrant workers. Proposed follow on actions include further development of the Andaman Lawyer Network, expansion of the Legal Clinic in Ranong, strengthening Migrant Worker CBO networks in Thailand and establishing a similar one in Kaw Thuang. The Plan Toys ‘in house’ Workers Association supported by a Thai Trade Union is an exemplary model for other employers. By bringing these mechanisms together there is potential to not only support access to rights and entitlements for migrant workers but also a body to research amendment of laws in Thailand and Myanmar and identify recommendations for ASEAN Migrant Worker Law.
(CEIA works in partnership with Ecologia Youth Trust and is funded by the UK Big Lottery Fund)
More information about our projects in Thailand can be found here.