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ASEAN Must Address Issue of Rights Abuses and Lack of Protections of Migrant Workers

By ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus  •  February 24, 2012

The ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) today called on ASEAN and its member governments, as well as international organisations, to take urgent and concrete measures to ensure the protection and rights of migrant workers across the region.

The issue of lack of protections and abuse of migrant workers and their children has long been one of concern but takes on greater importance ahead of the planned ASEAN Community in 2015, which hopes to see the free movement of labour among ASEAN member states.

“Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, like others across the region, are not protected by laws that guarantee the basic rights of other citizens, and face considerable difficulties, dangers and abuses on a regular basis,” said Eva Kusuma Sundari, President of AIPMC and Indonesian member of parliament. “The mistreatment of our citizens, whether in their home country or not, and being denied their basic human rights, is unacceptable in ASEAN in the 21st century and is an issue of international concern that must be urgently addressed at the national, bi-lateral and international levels. There is considerable focus on changes taking place within Myanmar, but this must not be to the detriment of the millions of Burmese living outside of the country still.”

AIPMC members and politicians from around the region met with local NGOs and government officials in Thailand today and yesterday as part of a three-day, fact-finding and awareness-raising mission to draw attention to the lack of social protection mechanisms for Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, who are some of the most vulnerable and exploited members of ASEAN societies.

Attending the meetings were Mr. Kraisak Choonhavan, AIPMC Vice-President; Mr. Muhammad Gamari Sutrisno, Indonesian MP; Dr. Nova Riyanti Yusuf, Indonesian MP; and Congressman Walden Bello, a leading intellectual activist representing the Akbayan party in the Philippines Congress, and Chairman of the Congressional Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs. They met with local NGOs and government officials in Phang Nga, including workers from the Federation for Education and Development (FED) and a host of other NGOs that work in the areas of human rights, health, education and other sectors relevant to migrant workers.

“There are the lessons that Burma can take from the Philippine experience – even if you have elections and democracy, but you do not have social reform and major economic policy that does not promote development and if you do not have an effective family planning program, you could end up with the situation we have in the Philippines right now, with over 10 million Filipinos working outside of the country,” Walden Bello warned.

Bello went on to say that the visit of the MPs to meet with NGOs, government officials, Burmese migrant workers as well as their Thai employers, had all helped give a sense of the very real difficulties faced by migrant workers as a largely undocumented labour force, as well bringing into perspective the massive contribution they make to the Thai
economy.

“This trip was necessary in giving us a feel of Burmese workers in Thailand and the real difficulties they encounter as a largely undocumented labour force, and at the same time, the big contribution they make to the Thai economy – in some areas of southern Thailand they constitute 40-50 percent or more of the population. It is very urgent for the Thai government to legalise Burmese workers in all senses of the term,” Bello said. Many Burmese escaping poverty and/or persecution at home come to Thailand in search of better-paid work and a better life for them and their families. But in many cases,

Burmese migrants, treated as second-class citizens, face human rights abuses from employers and the Thai authorities and continue to live a life governed by fear, violence, abuse, corruption and intimidation.

“Everyone has the right to equal treatment, this is the important thing that we have to do to help migrant workers, because they need help as humans, because they do not want to be discriminated against, they do not want to be treated differently,” said Indonesian MP Muhammad Gamari Sutrisno.

“If we just visit and there is no action, it is not effective, and it is not enough. As embers of AIPMC we will take the message to our parliaments and hopefully we can convince all members to think about a solution to the problem, because the lack of protection and rights for migrant workers is not just a regional problem, it is an international issue. It should be taken into consideration by international agencies, because the case in Thailand is just one example of abuses which are repeated across the world.”

Htoo Chit, founder and director of FED, speaking to the visiting MPs, highlighted a number of issues facing Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, including dangerous and unsanitary living conditions, high stress levels due to various concerns, including rights abuses, unsafe working conditions, discrimination in hospitals and other circumstances, domestic violence, police brutality and extortion, robbery, rape and a general lack of access to basic human rights protections. Htoo Chit said it was difficult to say if the number of Burmese migrants was increasing or decreased in light of the recent changes to the political climate inside Myanmar, but that an assessment would be possible within the
next six months to a year.

As Thailand has become more prosperous, fewer Thai people are willing to work in jobs which are commonly known as “dirty, dangerous, and demeaning”, and Burmese nationals have arrived in Thailand in increasing numbers to fill the labour shortage. There are an estimated 2.5 million legal and illegal migrant workers in Thailand. Of those, approximately 80 percent are from Myanmar. Migrant workers form an integral part of the Thai economy and workforce, with hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrant workers employed in various sectors of Thai industry, including fisheries, manufacturing, domestic and construction work, hotels and restaurants, and agriculture.

“The number of Burmese migrants is always rising, year-on-year. Of the estimated 100,000 Burmese in Phang Nga Province alone, only 30,000 are registered – their employers do not want them to be registered as they will not be arrested if they pay their employer for protection. The illegal migrants are abused. They are not compensated for work accidents and do not get other basic rights because they are not registered as legal workers in Thailand,” said Htoo Chit.

Htoo Chit also spoke of the issue of support from regional and international NGOs. He said that following the recent reforms in Myanmar, a lot of funding and work had been redirected into Myanmar itself.

“Most of the international NGOs are moving inside Burma. We agree they have to work inside Burma, but they also have to think about the refugees and migrants and others outside and along the border – they still need help and attention during this transitional period,” he said.

During a meeting with officials at the district office in Takua Pa, MPs questioned the district chief, Siripat Patkul, on what local officials were doing to combat the alleged abuses and lack of rights faced by migrant workers.

“There is discrimination, it is fuelled by nationalism, and is something that is experienced everywhere, and hopefully in the future, we will get more used to each other. As we move towards 2015, we will have to change ourselves culturally, and with the movement of people, we will be forced to change,” Siripat told the MPs.

“I of course want a world of equals – but do you treat all your children with total equality? What I’m saying is that I live as an officer of the Royal Thai Government in the real world, a world of problems. I am realistic, that is why I say what I say.”

Siripat denied the presence of trafficking gangs and said that in his district, there were no major problems between Thai and Burmese communities. He also said that free market economics meant that Burmese workers were often met with the same treatment as their Thai counterparts, despite not having the same legal protections.

“Burmese make up around 15 percent of the workforce in Takua Pa district. We can’t officially enforce minimum wage for migrant workers, but most of them won’t work for less than 200 baht a day – so it is more or less fixed by the flexibility of the supply and demand.”

However, MPs and the attending NGO representatives pointed out the persistent complaints and concerns that they see migrant workers facing on a daily basis. And much still needs to be done at the local, national and international level.

“The Indonesian government cares about its workers outside of the country, whereas the Myanmar government does not. Burmese migrants are relying on NGOs and themselves to give them leverage. It is ASEAN’s responsibility to stand up for these workers,” said Indonesian MP Nova Riyanti Yusuf.

“Democratization inside Burma will not lead to an end to economic migration. Ongoing humanitarian work inside Burma is important but we I hope that from this trip we can take pressure to international organizations to maintain their work and put effort into the issues facing migrant workers and people outside of the country, instead of only funding
efforts inside the country.”

For further information and interview requests please contact Aticha Wongwian (Thailand) on +66 8 79 923 703, info.bangkok@aseanmp.org, or Agung Putri Astrid (Indonesia) on +62 81514006416, or by email at info.jakarta@aseanmp.org.

For information on the work of the Federation of Education and Development (FED), or more detailed statistics and information on migrant workers in Phang Nga province, please contact FED Director Htoo Chit, on +0817977745, or htoochit01@ghre.org.

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This post is in: Press Release

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