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Thailand: voices from the factory

Jesuit Refugee Service has been working with migrants in Mae Sot, Thailand, since 2006, to assist with livelihoods for vulnerable communities. (JRS)
Thursday, January 17, 2013

(Mae Sot, Thailand) January 17, 2013 – Thailand is home to hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrant workers, more than 100,000 of whom work in Mae Sot's factories. Jesuit Refugee Service aims to provide durable solutions for this population, by establishing sustainable livelihood and income generating activities, by building the capacity of social support networks, avoiding aid dependency and working to ensure equal opportunities for men and women.

Rose*, 28, originally from Taunggyi, Shan state in southern Burma, was brought to Mae Sot by her father when she was 12 years old. At the age of 13, a broker took her to Bangkok to work in a noodle shop where she earned 1,000 Thai baht, or about $34, per month.

Three years later, after getting married and becoming pregnant with her first child, Rose returned to Mae Sot to escape the anxiety of being arrested that undocumented migrants face daily in Bangkok.

Rose's experience is not unique. Poe Poe*, 18, from Phyu township in eastern Burma, has worked in a garment factory since the age of 13.

Long working hours without breaks or sick leave, the struggle to save money, and the absence of proper safety standards and labor rights characterize the experience of Rose, Poe Poe and thousands of other migrant workers in Thailand.

Rose currently cleans the garment factory in exchange for about $5 per day for more than ten hours of work. For every one hour the workers are late to their shifts, they are deducted three hours of wages. Similarly, the consequence of missing one day of work is three days of work without pay.

Yet Rose is grateful for her job.

"I like to work here because I [receive] good payment," she told Jesuit Refugee Service staff in Mae Sot. But she admits that economic difficulties are a constant source of stress.

"I still need money to pay for my children's education …. I once paid an agent $150 to bring me back to Bangkok by walking through the jungle [so I could find a higher income job]. We were cheated and left in the middle of nowhere," she says, disappointment brimming in her eyes.

But Rose is one of the lucky ones who has never felt in danger in the factory. Her work place maintains a sound reputation of good management.

"I never felt unsafe, although [cleaning floors and tables] is not a comfortable job," Rose said.

Poe Poe, on the other hand, works in a different garment factory and feels unprotected in the dormitory, as there are not any separate lavatories and showers for women. Although she has never been physically attacked, Poe Poe feels unsafe when taking a shower as she is often watched by men.

In addition, the equipment in the factory is not always safe for the workers as the older sewing machines used to make the garments are dangerous, according to Poe Poe.

"The owner doesn't care, but we're really afraid to use those machines …. The new workers handle the old machines because they have no choice", she said.

In 2012, JRS Mae Sot supported two group discussions lead by the Overseas Irrawaddy Association for migrant workers on labor rights.

"Our rights are not fully respected because we're not given enough breaks," said Rose.

Poe Poe sews for more than ten hours per day without stopping. "We don't have enough rest. It's not fair at all," she said.

Although she wants to find another job, she feels trapped because her parents live with her in the factory. "I really want ... better conditions and higher pay, but if I quit, my parents will have no place to stay," Poe Poe said.

Both Poe Poe and Rose hold onto dreams about returning to their hometowns in Burma to farm.

"I'd like to stay in Thailand because it's safe and there are many ways to earn. However, if my parents who currently stay in Myawaddy want to go back to Taunggyi, I will go with them. We still have available farmland," said Rose.

"If I can save money, I will take my family back home to do crop farming. There, we'll have a happy life," Poe Poe sighed.

by Patcharin Nawichai, JRS Mae Sot Project Director and
Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

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