Friday, September 14, 2012

Living in Bondage, Thailand's Illegal Workers Wait for Intervention

Ko Aung Kyaw isn’t your average worker, but then again neither are most Burmese refugees.
While other Southeast Asian countries are seeing rapid economic growth and progressive social changes, Burma stands alone for having a stagnant economy, poor healthcare system, and one of the most totalitarian governments in the world. Although changes over the past few months have brought a wave of optimism, many Burmese citizens are desperate to escape to neighboring countries like Thailand.
Kyaw said that he left Burma at the end of December 2011 with no life goals. He came in contact with a broker by the name of Kyaw Moe and agreed to pay him the equivalent of $150 for providing transportation to Thailand and producing a fake migrant work permit.
When Kyaw arrived at a canning factory in Kanchanaburi—a large province that borders Burma to the west—he was told that the brokerage fee was $400. With a daily income of $6 with which he needed to pay for uniform fees, rent, food, and other necessities, Kyaw found himself stuck in a typical situation of debt bondage—like many victims of human trafficking he was faced with a nearly-impossible debt.
Kyaw’s situation was hardly unique. According to Burma’s Deputy Labor Minister Myint Thein, 700 undocumented Burmese workers are employed in the same factory where Kyaw was working. While there are almost 3 million legal Burmese immigrants, it’s impossible to know the number of Burmese refugees who work illegally in Thailand, partaking in every form of manual labor.
As one of the world’s largest rice, fish, and fruit exporters, Thailand depends on its agriculture for a large share of its wealth, and its agriculture depends on illegal immigrants. Lax policing of human trafficking and outdated laws have led to a system of exploitation—on boats, in factories, and on farms throughout the country.
The fight against human trafficking and debt bondage has been a losing battle for the past several decades, but as of last month Thailand might be forced to clean up its act.
Thailand was expected to be listed as a Tier 3 country—the lowest ranking possible—on the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report. The consequences could have been disastrous and might have led to the Thai fishing industry losing its largest customers and facing trade sanctions across the board. However, a last minute exception granted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let Thailand remain as a Tier 2 country as long as an immediate plan to stop human trafficking was put in place.
A few weeks later, on July 24, 2012, a meeting was held in Bangkok with representatives from Burma and other Southeast Asian countries, with the goal of tackling the region’s problem with human trafficking. Although the Thai government suggests that all neighboring countries need to work together to solve this issue, there is little said about the plan itself.
Kyaw quickly realized that he was essentially an indentured slave to his broker, and he decided to flee his factory after working there for only one month. He managed to take public transportation to Bangkok and now lives in Pathum Thani, a province just north of the city. He currently works at a car equipment factory, where he earns almost twice his old salary, works normal hours, and doesn’t have to pay off a broker. But he is still an illegal immigrant.
As for an estimated 1 million other Burmese immigrants working illegally in Thailand, it will take time to see how they will be protected in the future or if they will face deportation in the country’s effort to stop human trafficking.

Source : http://pulitzercenter.org