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Forced to cut corners, bosses prey on Burmese migrants

Tracing the crash from American hipsters' closets to the factory floor in Thailand.

This Burmese migrant worker, face caked with traditional "thanaka" powder, lives in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border. She and nearly 300 other workers were recently fired from a Thai garment factory, which blamed the layoffs on the global economic downturn. (Pailin Wedel/GlobalPost)

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.