Wildcats of Thai-Burma
shoppers in the U.S., the “Made in Thailand” label is
becoming more common on clothes racks in shopping malls and discount
stores. What shoppers in the U.S. and other countries on the receiving
end of Thailand’s garment exports may not realize is that a
large proportion of clothes “Made in Thailand” are actually
made by Burmese workers—increasingly in bustling border towns
like Mae Sot.
to the important “Friendship” border bridge over the Moei
River separating Burma and Thailand, Mae Sot is primarily a Burmese
town inside Thai boundaries. Approximately two-thirds of the population—or
50,000 of 80,000 people—are Burmese. But they are largely illegal
migrant workers who have crossed the border to work in the many
garment sweatshops, ceramics factories, construction sites, or in
the ubiquitous brothels. As illegal migrants, they do not have the
rights that Thais enjoy. Vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds,
subject to arbitrary detention and deportation, they rely on each
other for a community of solidarity and support.
increasingly vital force of strength, protection, and self-dependence
in Mae Sot’s Burmese community is the Burma Labor Solidarity
Organization (BLSO). While formed principally as a grassroots trade
union, the BLSO also provides crucial social services like health
care and education for a demographic allowed little access to Thailand’s
public sector. But the most important role BLSO plays is that of
the workers’ organization—a force for dignity, strength,
and power for a class of people not even afforded the rights of
activists like Moe Swe organize workers to improve conditions in
Thailand’s sweatshop factories. While the BLSO is not a trade
union as commonly understood in the U.S. or Europe, it is nonetheless
making inroads in grassroots labor organizing on the Thai-Burma
border, fighting for the basic rights and safety of a highly exploited
workforce. Often, BLSO support means saving lives, preventing on-the-job
injuries, and keeping Burmese workers out of the hands of the Thai
police who frequently extort, beat, and rape them—and often
repatriate them to Burma.
in June 2000, the BLSO works on a number of fronts to advance the
rights of Burmese on the border. The organization works “to
educate workers on basic human rights and labor rights, and improve
basic education and democracy awareness among the workers,”
and “to promote participation in [Burma’s] democracy movement
by encouraging unity and the empowerment of workers,” according
to its mission statement. In addition to factory employees, the
BLSO also organizes among construction workers, shopkeepers, and
in the many brothels, where BLSO activists assist girls and young
women in finding other employment.
large numbers of Burmese migrants and refugees in Thailand have
come across the border only relatively recently. Although spots
along the Thai-Burma border have served as bases of operation for
various ethnic armies and resistance groups since Burma’s bloody
civil war began in 1948, it was only in 1988 that Thailand also
became an outpost for Burma’s grassroots democracy movement.
During the year, millions of people across Burma took to the streets
to call for an end to the one-party rule and economic mismanagement
that had characterized the reign of the dictator Ne Win for 26 years.
The mass uprising was fueled by economic desperation; Ne Win had
driven Burma’s economy from the “rice bowl of Asia”
when he took power in 1962, to the humiliating designation of “Least
Developed Country” status in 1987. To drive the nails home
in the coffin, the dictator then rendered the existing currency
worthless—replacing a monetary system based on 10s with a system
based on 9s—what Ne Win considered to be an auspicious number.
It turned out to be unlucky for him when a popular uprising began
in March 1988 and swelled over the next several months. The largest
demonstrations were called for August 8—the “8/8/88”
date a deliberate antithesis of New Win’s preference for 9s.
It was the country’s largest ever uprising, and should have
spelled the end for the existing regime, but Ne Win ordered the
troops to open fire on the mostly nonviolent demonstrators and they
did—killing as many as 10,000. Troops stormed Rangoon’s
hospitals to finish off the wounded and burned injured protesters
in crematoriums along with the dead. The exact number massacred
will never be known.
democracy activists then fled, taking refuge in liberated areas
such as the strongholds of the Karen National Union—Burma’s
largest and longest-running armed resistance force. Student activists
soon formed their own guerilla army, the All Burma Students Democratic
1988, Thailand experienced a massive influx of Burmese, as ethnic
nationality groups like the Karen and Karenni fled the junta’s
scorched-earth offensives against their villages. Many, but not
all, refugees have been put into camps; there are over 150,000 people
in such camps today. Nevertheless, the Burmese human rights atrocities
and the endemic poverty ensured that people of various ethnic backgrounds
would continue to seek greater freedom and opportunities on the
Thai side of the border, a situation that has continued ever since.
Migrants cross over seeking both to escape aggression in Burma and
to send money back home.
Burmese migrants in Mae Sot are in constant danger from the Thai
police. Harassment is so constant and routine that some migrants
almost seem used to it, accepting it as an aspect of daily life.
For an outsider, however, the oppression in Mae Sot is unmistakable.
Moe Swe tells me that two of his BLSO colleagues have just been
jailed. He and other BLSO members try to round up the couple of
thousand Baht they will need to bail them out. The bail prices are
also arbitrary—seemingly set on a case- by-case basis by the
cops in charge that night.
in Mae Sot are under constant threat of persecution. Burmese migrants
face the hostility of local Thais who, informed by an often-xenophobic
media, see them as dirty, disease-carrying job-stealers. Burmese
are occasionally the random targets of severe beatings and shootings.
The police devote little effort to investigating such incidents
or bringing the perpetrators to justice, which is hardly surprising
since the Thai police themselves treat the Burmese community in
the manner of an occupation force. The authorities periodically
conduct street-sweeps—literally blocking off entire blocks
in areas like Mae Sot’s busy Burmese market, arresting everyone.
They demand identification documents from the arrested, but, of
course, many are unable to provide them. Undocumented migrants can
expect deportation or time in jail where they are subject to rape,
beatings, and other humiliation at the hands of their guards. Immigration
officials sometimes also sexually assault Burmese women during the
deportation process, and often rob the workers of hard-earned wages
and precious belongings just prior to deporting them.
frequently raid factories. On July 5, 2000, for example, 7 of Mae
Sot’s largest factories were raided and about 10,000 Burmese
arrested. Some were deported to Burma, some sent to Thai Immigration
detention cells, and others had to go into hiding—including
pregnant women and children, who went without food, shelter, or
clean water for days. The BLSO came to their aid by providing them
with medicine, rice, and temporary shelter.
control over the Burmese population has been made easier by the
registration of migrant workers in 2001. There are now an estimated
300,000 documented Burmese nationals working in Thailand. But the
undocumented number dwarfs this number; over one million migrants
total have left Burma to work in Thailand. Min Zin, assistant editor
of the Thai- based
magazine, claims, “Burmese migrant workers, desperate
to make ends meet, are perhaps the country’s largest export
after illicit drugs.”
business owners often prefer to skip the registration fees of 4,500
Baht per worker, leaving the unregistered workers vulnerable to
exploitation and possible repatriation back to Burma. Instead they
can save money by paying 500-1,000 Baht a month to officials to
“overlook” abuses in their businesses, which may employ
hundreds of workers.
traffickers bring in Burmese workers by the truckload, across the
border into towns like Mae Sot and sometimes onward to Tak and other
districts offering ample opportunities in sweatshop factories, agriculture,
and service jobs. According to
The Bangkok Post
, a trafficker
arrested in April made 21 million Baht (about $489,000 U.S.) in
just two months.
noticeable change in Mae Sot between 2001 and this year was the
number of Burmese wearing laminated identification cards around
their necks—the badges of registered workers. Registration,
it would seem, should protect Burmese migrants against repatriation
and other perils from the police. In reality, the registration process
undermines workers’ ability to defend their rights and to fight
for their survival.
registration process ties workers to specific factories. Once registered,
workers have no option of changing jobs; their registration chains
them to both a place and to a specific factory owner. The workers
cannot change jobs without the factory owner’s signature where
they currently work, giving the owners control over workers’
mobility. It is the latest step in the process of turning Burmese
migrants into indentured servants. Workers are not paid enough to
support their families or often even themselves. Long working hours
at many factories make living on site a necessity; workers then
have to pay for their lodging, food (often broken rice), and curry
paste. Too often, workers have to demand their back pay from the
bosses. This is often when the wildcat striking begins.
owners cheat registered workers out of the only benefit of the registration
process: protection from harassment and deportation. Those wearing
cards around their necks are the lucky ones; many managers and bosses
take the workers’ actual cards, permitting the laborers only
to carry photocopies. The bosses know that this reinforces the control
that they have over the workers because it makes the migrants even
more vulnerable; laborers are less likely to strike against a factory
owner who has their registration cards.
owners and managers do not hesitate to call in the police to break
up strikes and frequently notify the authorities after firing workers,
hoping that they will be forcibly repatriated as a deterrent to
other laborers from organizing efforts. The ability to turn over
registration cards simplifies the process for police. Workers then
have to take refuge wherever they can, often hiding out in fields,
or, thanks to the BLSO, in safe houses.
permits must be renewed each year, a number of workers recently
found themselves illegal once again and subject to deportation b
ecause their factory owners did not sign the new work permits.
Injury to One…
is in this harsh environment that the BLSO operates, teaching Burmese
migrant workers the basics of discreet shop floor organizing and
how to conduct a strike. The education program begins with a review
of Thai labor law. The BLSO had recently translated the law and
was widely distributing this most basic information on their legal
rights to migrant workers. This is what had prompted a recent spate
of wildcat strikes. They were spontaneously organized as outraged
Burmese workers realized the extent to which their employers were
violating their rights under law.
irony is that as poor as working conditions are in Thailand’s
sweatshops, they are generally better than across the border in
Burma. Burma’s garment factories pay some of the lowest wages
in the world—as low as four cents an hour. Trade union organizing
is illegal in Burma—punished by imprisonment and sometimes
torture. Many of the industrial parks in and around Rangoon were
built with forced labor and as Burma’s sweatshop industry continues
to thrive off of contracts with foreign businesses—such as
the $400 million trade with the U.S.—the risk of more factories
being built with forced labor increases.
September 2002, rioting broke out throughout Burma as the currency
plummeted to an all-time low. A full 25 percent of the population
lives in poverty, and according to UNICEF, one in three children
is malnourished. These “push” factors, along with one
of the world’s most notorious human rights records and a dreaded
and ubiquitous military intelligence network, are why so many Burmese
have crossed into Thailand, legally or otherwise, to find work.
such as those producing for U.S. companies like L.L. Bean pay their
workers between one to two thousand Baht a month ($23-$45 U.S.).
Ventilation is poor, bathroom breaks are limited, female workers
are harassed, and workers often have to live onsite in lodging that
is cramped, hot, and unsanitary.
unions are illegal in Burma and factory owners generally forbid
any organizing attempts by their Burmese employees, prohibiting
all “workers’ associations” except for social clubs
run by the owners’ loyal favorites. This creates a difficult
environment for BLSO. Organizers meet with the workers outside of
the factories, educating them about their legal rights and what
kind of support the organization can provide when the workers decide
to take action.
a recent strike, the factory owner called the 16 striking workers
in—giving them the back pay they demanded, but then promptly
firing them. As they were leaving the factory grounds, they were
attacked by local drug addicts armed with metal pipes and believed
to be in the owner’s pay. One worker needed six stitches. But
with the support of the union, the fired workers were able to get
their belongings and their registration cards back. The BLSO is
currently helping them find new employment.
integral to migrant workers’ hopes for a better life is the
skills training the organizations facilitates. Women leaving prostitution
and its many life-threatening dangers behind, for example, can learn
sewing skills through BLSO training sessions. Because BLSO members
know which factories have better working conditions, the organization
can help these women find better employment.
role that the BLSO plays in Mae Sot’s Burmese community extends
far beyond labor organizing and skills training, as important as
these may be. The organization operates two schools for migrant
children, who are not allowed to attend Thai schools. This year
BLSO opened a clinic that serves the community two days a week.
Along with the renowned Mae Tao clinic run by Dr. Cynthia Maung
(this year’s recipient of the Magsaysay Award—called Asia’s
“equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize”), the BLSO clinic
is the only health care provider available. Burmese migrants are
barred from Thai hospitals as well. Every year thousands of people
cross the border from Burma seeking treatment for various ailments
and serious injuries, including the not-uncommon gunshot or landmine
victims from a conflict-ridden area.
is through grassroots groups like the BLSO that the Burmese migrant
communities along the border have empowered themselves, to fight
oppression and exploitation—not just to survive, but to survive
Dan Beeton is
with the Free Burma Coalition in Washington, DC.