by Benjamin HelfrichFri Dec 7, 12:02 AM ET
Young Myanmar migrants taking part in a class in the Thai province of Samut Sakhon, 30 kilometres west of Bangkok. Samut Sakhon is home to about 450,000 people, and the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) estimates that 70 percent of them are Myanmar migrants seeking work.(AFP/File/Benjamin Helfrich)
Peeling shrimp for 14 hours a day can break the most weathered of workers, but not Som, a Myanmar migrant toiling in a Thai factory side-by-side with her family.
She processes more seafood with her nimble 14-year-old fingers than many of her aging colleagues, making her a bona fide breadwinner although she earns only about 100 baht (three dollars) a day.
Truth told, she’d rather have a pencil in her hand than a crustacean.
“I’d prefer to go to school, but I have to make money,” she said while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a drab one-room dwelling in Samut Sakhon, a coastal province 30 kilometres (25 miles) west of Bangkok.
“I don’t like (the work), but I have to do it,” she added.
Seven years ago Som and her family joined the hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrants in Thailand, fleeing the hardships of life under the military regime that has run their country’s economy into the ground.
Some fear that further sanctions following the junta’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September could lead to a new influx of migrants to Samut Sakhon, making workplace abuses tougher to monitor.
“There are situations (in Samut Sakhon) that are the worst forms of child labour and forced labour,” said Thetis Mangahas, a programme manager with the UN’s International Labour Organisation.
Samut Sakhon is one of Thailand’s wealthiest provinces, home to 40 percent of the kingdom’s two billion-dollar-a-year seafood processing industry.
Half of the seafood handled here ends up in the United States, with much of the rest going to the European Union and Japan.
Mangahas estimates that as many as 10 percent of the people working in the province face exploitation. Others, such as Thai labour activist Sampong Sakaew, fear that number will rise if more migrants arrive from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
“I think more Burmese workers are coming to Samut Sakhon right now,” said Sampong, who heads the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN).
“Many people are now hiding in the jungle to avoid the authorities. They return at night and emerge in the morning for work,” he added.
Samut Sakhon is home to about 450,000 people, and LPN estimates that 70 percent of them are Myanmar migrants seeking work. Only 74,000 of the migrants in the province are registered legally in Thailand, the group says.
In 2004, Thailand declared an amnesty for the migrants and allowed them a one-off chance to legally register for employment, according to Sampong.
But every year more and more people trek through Myanmar’s landmine-infested eastern provinces to search for a better life in Thailand.
“Every day and every night, more and more are crossing the border,” Sampong said.
In September, a police raid on the Ranya Paew factory unveiled wretched conditions for 800 workers.
Police said women there were forced to shave their heads and were beaten. Families were forced to buy rancid pork from the factory’s owner while the workers lived within the plant’s barbed-wired compound.
Inside the factory, workers sometimes laboured with guns pointed at their temples, according to LPN.
Panisuan Jamnarnwej, director of the Thai Frozen Food Association, oversees 56 member factories in Samut Sakhon that readily employ Burmese migrants.
“They are good at supervising and working instead of enjoying life like the Thais,” he said.
But a report by the Seafarers Union of Burma, a trade union in exile, says that in many cases forced overtime and wages below the legal Thai minimum of 189 baht (5.72 dollars) per day is standard.
While Panisuan is quick to defend his members saying all abide by Thai law, he admits some working conditions in Samut Sakhon are not ideal.
“But there are slave factories everywhere, even in New York,” he said.
Thein New was lucky enough to avoid such a place.
After the 1988 student-led uprising in Myanmar, which was crushed when soldiers killed more than 3,000 people in the streets, the 44-year-old mother of eight joined a mass exodus to Thailand.
She and her family left their homes in Mon state, secretly crossed into Thailand and trekked through the jungle for days before reaching Samut Sakhon.
She has organised racks of squid at the same factory alongside many of her kin ever since.
“Normally I get around 200 baht (six dollars) per day, and my boss lets me quit if I get a headache,” she said.
When Thein New falters, four of her children who work beside her pick up the slack instead of attending school.
Despite a Thai law providing education for all children regardless of legal status, just two Samut Sakhon schools accept Myanmar children, who are then separated from their Thai peers.
Many Myanmar families depend on wages from their children and each morning opt to bring them to the plant rather than the playground.
More that 2,800 child migrants under the age of 15 are registered in Samut Sakhon. About 50 percent of them, like Som, have entered the workforce, according to LPN.
Mangahas sees this as a failure of Thai policy.
“This industry allows for seasonal work and young people are the workforce that can adapt most easily,” she said. “But the policies in place don’t account for these young people and the special protection they deserve.”
Thein New is sympathetic towards abused workers in Samut Sakhon and regrets she can not help them.
“I am very lucky, but when I hear about bad employers I feel like I need to fight against them, but I can’t do it alone,” she said.