Forced to cut corners, bosses prey on Burmese migrants

MAE SOT, Thailand — As Wall Street’s crash continues to reverberate, shock waves are unsettling places that most Americans couldn’t find on a map.

Add to that list the raucous Thai-Burma border, lined with factories producing goods for the western world.

Droves of Burmese migrants pour into western Thailand illegally each day across the narrow Moei River — often on inner tubes. They come seeking hard labor, working for less than Thailand’s $4.50-per-day minimum wage. Many live right in their bosses’ factories or on their fields, scrimping to send cash to families back home.

As American spending plummets, so have earnings for the Thai garment factories, rubber producers and other export businesses. Industrial bosses, suddenly forced to cut corners, are increasingly preying on their most vulnerable workers: Burmese migrants.

Now, watchdog groups and economists say many Thai bosses, desperate to save their dying businesses, are pushing these migrants even deeper into the margins.

“In terms of abuse … it’s been happening for years. Now it’s intensified,” said Anna Malindog, an activist with the People’s Partner for Development and Democracy in Mae Sot, Thailand. “Factory workers are pressured ... to make sure they make a profit and not lose their business.”

Many workers are fired without receiving their last two weeks’ pay. Others are worked seven days a week, for 16 hours a day or longer, under threat of losing their jobs. Some are hit with pay cuts to their already illegally low salaries.

Nay Thway, a 21-year-old migrant from Burma, spent months stitching together Asics shoes and items for Ben Sherman, a quasi-hipster clothing brand. He and hundreds of others would work 16 hours a day for about $3.60, then go home into crowded hostel-style rooms crammed with up to 14 other workers.

They were happy to have the work, he said. But in February, Thway and nearly 300 others in the Mae Sot garment factory were fired — many without their past two weeks’ pay. A note posted on the factory gate blamed the layoffs on poor productivity and the economic crisis.

“I didn’t ask much from our boss because I understand the world economic crisis,” said Thway, his face framed by black curtains of hair. “Even though we tried hard for our boss, he didn’t look after us.”

The workers’ frustration over being sacked with no pay, he said, is mixed with betrayal — for mistreating the workers after they slaved so many days and nights.

“We’ve been working for our boss for so hard for so long,” said Win Su San, 17, who was fired from the same factory. Her family has relied on the few dollars she’s able to send back to Burma.

“No matter what,” Thway said, “I won’t go back to Burma. I’ll just stay around the border area.”
Estimates of the number of Burmese migrants inside Thailand range between 2 and 5 million, said Jackie Pollack of the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Program. The Thai businesses that rely on exports — garment stitching, fruit picking, rubber tapping, manufacturing and more — are the most inclined to use Burmese migrants for cheap labor.

Thailand, a regional export powerhouse, could see exports sink 15 to 20 percent this year, said Pongsak Assakul, vice president of Thailand’s Chamber of Commerce. “If you want to lay off workers, you’ll probably lay off immigrant workers before Thai workers,” Pongsak said. “The layoff of workers will cause a lot of social problems.”

For those who trek back home to Burma, the path is laced with danger. Traveling as an illegal migrant is forbidden and police checkpoints line the major routes. Many born in particularly bloody regions of Burma — which is controlled by a menacing, autocratic junta — feel they can’t return home at all.

Complaints from Burmese migrants working in the export sector have spiked since the global financial crash, migrant aid groups have reported. Not all bosses are exploitative, Pollack said. But even fair bosses, facing their company’s demise, are now compelled to sack migrant workers — or at least slash their already meager pay.

In Thailand’s deep south, home to seemingly endless fields of rubber trees, migrant rubber tappers told Pollack their pay was reduced by a staggering three-quarters.

“When I asked if they think maybe the employer was exploiting them, they said no,” Pollack said. Using mobile phones, she said, the workers looked up rubber commodity prices on the Thai stock exchange. After seeing that the price had indeed plummeted, some even sympathized with their boss, she said.

For the disparate ethnic groups dodging violence in Burma, $4-a-day work in Thailand is a desirable way out. But as the economic crisis drags on, many who slip across Thailand’s liquid border will find predatory bosses on the other side — if they’re lucky enough to find work at all, Pollack said.

“We sincerely hope this economic crisis won’t push people to their final coping mechanism,” she said, “where people are really living on the edge to survive.”

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