Each day our internship is broken into two types of activities: in the morning we visit local Mae Sot (pronounced Mae Sawt) organizations that are also working with Burmese people to help us get a better understanding of the needs of this community and in the afternoon we teach English lessons to Zar Zar, Zin Zin, May and recently we have been joined by a woman named Tin Tin from another local organization. Below I will describe the information we learned about Burmese migrant workers on Tuesday, June 4.
On Tuesday, we visited the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association in Mae Sot where we met with three of YCOWA’s twelve staff members. We were actually meeting in YCOWA’s safe house for migrant workers who had either been recently sacked or were striking against their employers for their rights, so we did not take any photos to ensure this location remains a secret. I personally found this meeting incredibly informative and spent my free time in the afternoon and evening further researching these labor rights abuses that Burmese migrant workers are suffering from in Mae Sot. While the situation these migrant workers are in is truly terrible, it was comforting for me to know that organizations like YCOWA exist who are fighting for their rights.
The main labor rights violations that migrant workers are currently suffering are exceptionally long work days, receiving a salary significantly below minimum wage and not having days off. All three of these violations are explained in more detail below.
1. According to the Thai Labor Protection Act B.E. 2541, workers (regardless of ethnicity and legal status) are not to work more than 8 hours a day and 48 hours a week. However, most migrant workers in Mae Sot work 14 hour days (8 am until 10 pm). Technically, the hours between 5 pm and 10 pm are considered overtime, but the workers do not receive overtime compensation (which should be 1.5 times their normal salary).
2. In December 2012, the minimum wage in Thailand was increased to 300 baht/day (approx. 9.85 USD). Therefore, Burmese workers in Mae Sot factories should be receiving 300 baht/day, but this is not the case. These Mae Sot migrant workers are only receiving 160-170 baht/day (approx. 5.26-5.59 USD).
3. As mentioned previously, workers may only work 48 hours a week according to the Thai Labor Protection Act B.E. 2541. This can be divided into six, eight-hour work days, with one day as a “holiday” or “day off” from work each week. However, these migrant workers are given one day as holiday each month, which is a gross violation against this Act.
As one can imagine, working 14-hour days, seven days a week, adds much stress to one’s body and greatly increases one’s chance of having health related problems. Stephen Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, is currently working with YCOWA and elaborated on some of the workers’ health problems for us. He told us many of these workers cannot receive time off from their employers to go to the hospital, and if they choose to go without telling their employer, it is quite likely the employer will just sack the worker without a second thought. Workers who choose to go to the hospital are also in danger of being stopped by the Thai police. This is a problem for these migrant workers because most of them are undocumented in Thailand. They choose to leave Burma and become migrant workers because they can make more money in Thailand, but they are also putting themselves at a constant risk of deportation. If the Thai police stop these workers and they are unable to provide their legal documents, they can try to bribe the police officer, or if they do not have any money to offer as a bribe (as in often the case), they will be taken to jail and then deported. Another health risk many workers undergo involve safety hazards, especially in the agricultural sector. Many of these workers are out in fields spraying pesticides, but their employers refuse to purchase them adequate safety equipment. Again, according to the Thai Labor Protection Act B.E. 2541, all employers are required to provide all employees with adequate safety equipment. For someone spraying pesticides, this would include a mask, gloves and boots, all of which most employers are not currently providing their workers. As with most things, it all boils down to money. Employers think they can exploit these Burmese migrant workers because they are undocumented and the workers need a job so badly, they rarely question their employers. In additional, especially in the agricultural industry, workers are hired for very short periods of time (say two weeks) and most employers do not want to spend money on safety equipment for an employee who will only be working for them for such a short amount of time. These migrant workers are then inhaling these dangerous toxins into their bodies, which will only lead to major health problems in the future.
So those are the main problems faced by Burmese migrant workers living in Mae Sot. Now you may be asking, what can be done to help their situation? That’s where YCOWA comes into action. The below quotations are directly from an information pamphlet we received at YCOWA about their activities.
- “Organizing Burmese migrant workers to promote and protect Labor Rights.”
- “Working in collaboration with the Lawyer Council of Thailand, MAP Foundation and other Thai NGOs to provide legal assistance to workers in pursuing justice for exploitative working conditions, which include compensation for workplace injuries, unpaid wages, and other forms of abuse.”
- “Organizing workshops and trainings on labor and human rights, democracy, organizational development, community-organizing and vocational skills.”
- “Assisting workers to find jobs.”
- “Providing temporary shelter to workers who have lost their jobs, are ill, pregnant, or have been victims of sexual assault in the safe house in Mae Sot.”
- “Coordinating social and religious events for Burmese migrant workers.”
- “Publishing the monthly “Yaung Chi Oo Labor Affairs Journal” in Burmese.”
- “Networking with both YCOWA branches, associated workers’ groups and trade unions in Thailand.”
- “Informing the international community about the current situation of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.”
This organization definitely keeps themselves business with many activities, but after speaking with them for over an hour, we got the impression that their two main activities are hosting labor rights discussions with Burmese migrant workers so they can be aware of their legal rights according to the Thai Labor Protection Act B.E. 2541 and providing legal services to migrant workers who are taking action to protect their rights. Depending on the factory and how many workers are advocating for their rights, the legal process with the Thai government can take anywhere from 3 months to over 1 year. Since it is such a long process, some Burmese migrant workers leave the case and pursue work elsewhere to help support themselves and their families back in Burma. However, a handful of workers usually stick with the case till the end and come out victorious. After listening to YCOWA’s presentation, we had the opportunity to ask them questions. Below are paraphrased questions and answers.
1. What is the most common reason for striking?
YCOWA: Daily wages. Workers fight to receive minimum wage (300 baht/day).
2. Does YCOWA win most of their legal cases?
YCOWA: Yes, YCOWA is mostly successful but we are finding it more difficult now because employers are hiring good lawyers who find ways to manipulate the system. In some instances, especially for our large cases, employers have come to YCOWA and tried to bribe us to stop working on the case. This isn’t very common though.
3. Where does YCOWA hold their workshops to tell workers about their rights?
YCOWA: Most employers provide housing for their workers on or near the factory site. The housing is very minimal and crowded. Since factory employers do not want their workers to know about these rights, it is difficult for us to hold our presentations in housing provided by the factory employer. We, instead, rent out a room near the factory for the day and hold discussions there.
4. What types of workshops does YCOWA hold?
YCOWA: We do ½ day workshops about workers’ basic legal rights as well as three-day workshops where we cover human and labor rights in more detail as well as gender issues. For three-day workshops, migrant workers must ask their factory workers for time off and this is often difficult to obtain.
5. How many factories have you worked with?
YCOWA: Over thirty different factories. We are starting to see more migrant workers move to Bangkok to try and find work their because the pay is better. However, with recent regulations imposed by TAK (the province Mae Sot is in) officials, which directly oppose Thai government sanctions, it is more difficult for workers to travel out of Mae Sot. For more information about new developments, read this article on YCOWA’s website: http://ycowaeng.blogspot.com/2013/05/prisoners-of-mae-sot.html
6. After attending your labor rights information sessions, how many attendees are interested in working with you to fight for their rights?
YCOWA: Approximately three to four out of twenty. The first step after a few factory workers have expressed interest is to start a strike with most factory workers. We then petition the Thai government and start the legal process.
7. Once a legal case is won and the Thai courts determine that the employer must pay their workers the legal minimum wage, do all workers in that factory now receive minimum wage or only the workers who actually signed and wrote the petition?
YCOWA: Only the workers who signed their name on the case receive minimum wage because the employer wants to keep his costs as low as possible. However, if the workers on the case can document that all workers in the factory receive below minimum wage and they say they are representing all of them, then all workers receive the true minimum wage.
8. Do the workers who win these settlements have to be worried about getting fired later because the employer doesn’t want to pay them minimum wage?
YCOWA: It depends on whether the migrant worker has legal papers in Thailand. If the individual has legal papers (i.e. temporary passport and work permit), and they go on strike and win, they cannot be fired from their job. However, if the worker does not have legal papers, when they go on strike, they are arrested. They are allowed to petition their employer for minimum wage but after the case is won, they will be deported back to Burma. Therefore, most migrant workers without legal papers, after winning the case will go into hiding or flee Mae Sot. The workers without papers are setting an example that migrant workers have rights and can petition the government to have their employer recognize these rights.
From 2001-2012 YCOWA, in coordination with the MAP Foundation (GlobeMed at Emory’s partner), assisted 2,083 workers in 157 cases, winning a total of 15,745,456 Baht in remuneration through the Thai legal process.
On June 6, YCOWA celebrated their 14th birthday as an organization. We truly enjoyed visiting this organization and if anyone has further questions, we have their contact information and we can get you answers!
Love from Mae Sot,
Rachel, Morgan, and Rachael