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Jackie Pollock: Migrant workers and May Day

May 13, 2013

By Jackie Pollock, a founder of the MAP Foundation, a Thai NGO, working to support migrant workers and their families in Thailand. Jackie has advocated for the rights of migrants from Myanmar since 1992. She is also one of the founders of the Mekong Migration Network.

Today, May 1st 2013, workers in Thailand are organizing marches and speeches and petitions on the occasion of the 123rd anniversary of International Workers Day and the 67th Anniversary of National Labour Day of Thailand. Hundreds of migrant workers from Myanmar are joining the Thai workers in the rallies in Bangkok while in border towns the migrants are organizing their own events.

One of the workers demands in the petition to the Government of Thailand this year refers specifically to migrant workers demanding that the government improves the protection and welfare of migrant and informal workers. According to the Thai Office of Foreign Workers there are currently 784,033 workers from Myanmar registered to work in Thailand, with a further 327,508 waiting for their documents. NGOs estimate that there are a further two million who remain undocumented.

Myanmar workers in Thailand work in all sectors of labour especially in the fishing industry, agriculture, manufacturing, construction and domestic work. They are often underpaid and exploited in the workplace and face many difficulties when they try to organize for better conditions. This year, workers are calling for the Thai government to ratify ILO Conventions 87 and 98, both of which deal with protecting the rights of workers to organize, freedom of association and collective bargaining. They are both considered fundamental to protecting rights of workers and Thailand has not signed either of them. Myanmar however ratified Convention 87 in 1955 and it is still in force.

While in Thailand, migrants are allowed to join existing unions but are not allowed to form a union. But with only 4% of the Thai workforce unionized, it is not easy for migrants to join a Thai union, most of which are based in Bangkok. Myanmar workers in the border areas are often restricted from travelling to Bangkok and so it is difficult for them to take part in union meetings. Language is another barrier, although after working in Thailand for over a decade, many workers from Myanmar are fluent in Thai.

Myanmar workers in factories on the borders have tried to organize and take action against the exploitative conditions but they face difficulties because their employers withhold their passports and work permits and so they cannot show their documents to immigration when they protest and are sometimes deported. In a rare success story, 323 workers from the M Apparel Factory in Mae Sot organized and won their right to be paid minimum wage on June 5th 2012. Sadly, the victory was short lived when in March 2013, the factory announced without any warning that it was closing down. 500 workers again organized to demand one months notice pay and severance pay. After many negotiations and difficulties, the 500 workers received an average of 4,800 baht (160US$) each and had to find new work. Such is the plight of workers from Myanmar in the garment factories in Mae Sot.

This factory like many other businesses in Thailand claimed that they could not survive if they paid the workers the new minimum wage of 300 baht (10US$) a day. However, Thai workers believe that 300 baht a day is still not a living wage and today they are demanding that the government calculate the minimum wage as a wage sufficient to take care of the worker and two members of their family. In fact when Thailand first introduced a law regulating minimum wage 40 years ago, the three party panel comprising of representatives from the government sector, employees and employers decided that the minimum wage should be set at a rate that was “sufficient for the employee and two additional family members to dwell in society’. However, three years later, an amendment to the law, redefined minimum wage to be a sufficient income for just the worker and not the family members and it is this definition which remains today.

According to the Labour Protection Laws in Thailand, all workers, regardless of nationality are entitled to minimum wage. The labour law does however exclude certain categories of workers, for example, agricultural workers and domestic workers. Even a new regulation aimed at protecting the rights of domestic workers did not change this policy, and the 48,600 registered migrant domestic workers are still not entitled to minimum wage and have to negotiate with their employers for a reasonable wage. Many domestic workers receive only a very very small salary.

Of particular concern to all workers of all nationalities is health and safety at work. With the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh just a few days ago killing 380 garment workers following from the fire in Tazreen Fashions factory killing over 100 women workers in November last year, workers in factories in Thailand and in Myanmar must be fearing for their lives. In Thailand, one of the key events every Labour Day is to remember the 188 workers, mostly women who lost their lives, at the Kader Toy factory fire in Nakhon Pathom in 1993. Sadly, conditions in factories where migrants work remain dangerous. In a recent survey called “RegularRights” by MAP Foundation comparing the living and working conditions of 493 documented and undocumented workers from Myanmar in Thailand, it was found that less than half the workplaces had fire hydrants and that less than 30% of the workers had ever been informed about what to do in case of fire in their factories. International campaign groups, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, in response to the disasters in Bangladesh are calling for international companies who source their products in factories overseas to immediately invest in making changes to comply to national and international fire and safety standards and bring an end to such tragedies.

For workers from Myanmar in Thailand there are so many concerns that it is often difficult to know where to start to improve the situation. International Workers Day started in America with the call for an 8 hour working day, “8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest and 8 hours of recreation”. Even that call, made 123 years ago, is not fulfilled for migrant workers who are regularly working over 10 hours a day. It’s an uphill struggle for workers to be able to exercise their rights, but migrants from Myanmar are joining with their Thai brothers and sisters on this May 1st under the banner of “Workers of the World Unite” to keep up that struggle.

“Migrant Workers and May Day” first published in 7 Day News Journal in Burmese on 1 May 2013