Wildcats of the Thai-Burma Border

For shoppers in the U.S., the “Made in Thailand” label is becoming ever more common on clothes racks in shopping malls and discount stores. Even for the more socially aware consumer, the label probably does not provoke the same sort of emotional reaction as a “Made in Indonesia”, Bangladesh, or Burma tag would – countries where labor abuses are notorious and sweatshop conditions have been well-documented. Thailand, after all, is widely considered to be the most democratic country in Southeast Asia, where human rights are valued and freedom of expression is promoted. Yet as Thailand’s export industry grew about 10 percent per year since 1985, the “Made in Thailand” label has become more and more common. What savvy 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.

Home 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 these are not immigrants, legal residents of the Thai Kingdom. 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.

An 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 of a class of people not even afforded the rights of “second-class citizens.”

“We’ve been having a problem with the strikers lately,” BLSO organizer Moe Swe tells me, laughing. “They’ve been starting spontaneous strikes, and then don’t know how to negotiate their demands.”

This is a great success, for Burmese migrant workers are generally forbidden from organizing.

BLSO 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.

Founded 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.

Poverty and Oppression on Both Sides of the Border

The 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 way began in 1948, it was only in 1988 that Thailand also became an outpost for Burma’s grassroots democracy movement. 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 10’s with a system based on 9’s – 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 9’s. It was the country’s largest ever uprising, and should have spelled the end for the existing regime, but the military struck back. 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.

Most 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 Front (ABSDF).

After 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. The 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 to both escape aggressions in Burma and to send money back home.

Instead, Burmese migrants have found a situation all-too familiar. Burmese 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. The arbitrary nature of police harassment is evident when 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.

Even more horrifying was Moe Swe’s tale of a jail-rape the night before my arrival in Mae Sot. The woman, a Karen migrant, had been brutalized and violated by the police. This was a gang rape, he tells me- the woman was attacked by seven police officers – not an uncommon occurrence, he explained.

The BLSO documents cases like this, and, with a developing network of concerned citizens, trade unions, and NGO’s in other countries, such incidents no longer occur in obscurity. BLSO members work with people who have suffered from the Thai police, encouraging them to relate their stories. The BLSO also organizes assistance for such people during and after detention by the Thai “authorities.”

During my recent visit, Moe Swe related how Thai border police raped a woman as she was crossing back into Thailand. Despite the danger, she decided to press charges, and enlisted Moe Swe’s assistance. Although he realized the risks involved – which would include a threat on his own life – he explained, “What could I do? If she was going to take the risk, how could I refuse to help?” Making it clear that he was not going to be threatened, Moe Swe saw the case brought to court, where the proceedings seemed to drag out far longer than necessary. As the woman needed to return to her family in Burma, she decided to settle for 50,000 Baht  (about $1,136 U.S.) in compensation. While it seems clear that the full measure of justice was not served in this case, it was a far greater reckoning than most migrants have been able to expect.

Burmese 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 or even shootings. The police devote little effort into 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.

Police frequently raid factories. On July 5, 2000, for example, seven 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.

Registered Misery

This 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 The Irrawaddy magazine, claims, “Burmese migrant workers, desperate to make ends meet, are perhaps the country’s largest export after illicit drugs.”

Thai 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.

Thai traffickers bring in Burmese workers by the truckload, across the border into towns like Mae Sot and sometimes onward to Tak and other districts with ample opportunities for the workers in sweatshop factories, agriculture, and service jobs. Trafficking is big money. According to The Bangkok Post, a trafficker arrested in April had made 21 million Baht (about $489,000 US) in just two months.

One noticeable change in Mae Sot between my visits in 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.

The 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 can not 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 generally 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, for food (often broken rice), and for curry paste. Too often, workers have to demand their back pay from the bosses, and this is often when the wildcat striking begins.

Factory 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.

Factory 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.

Because the permits must be renewed each year, a number of workers recently found themselves illegal once again  – and subject to deportation – because their factory owners did not sign the new work permits.

An Injury to One is an Injury to All

It 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 the Thai labor law. “I’ve never seen the Thai labor law in Burmese, despite the numbers of Burmese migrants working in Thailand’s factories,” one observer of Thailand’s labor situation told me during my last trip to Thailand. But when I arrived in Mae Sot a week later, Moe Swe gave me a copy of the law, written in the distinctively rotund Burmese script. The BLSO had recently translated it and was widely distributing to migrant workers this most basic information on their legal rights. This is what had prompted a recent spate of wildcat strikes, spontaneously organized as outraged Burmese workers realized the extent to which their employers were violating their rights under law.

The 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 (USD). 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.

Burma is a country wracked by economic crisis. During my September stay in Thailand, news broke of rioting throughout Burma as the currency plummeted to an all-time low. A full 25% 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, are why so many Burmese have crossed into Thailand, legally or otherwise, to find work.

But as the BLSO’s Than Doke states, such migrants soon realize that they are not escaping oppression. Instead, they find working conditions as bad as in Burma’s factories. For Burmese illegals working in Thai factories, wages are usually low, safety and health concerns are neglected, and the ability to organize is almost nonexistent. Factories 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, despite the sweltering heat, bathroom breaks are limited, female workers are harassed and workers often have to live onsite in lodging that is cramped, hot, and unsanitary.

Whereas trade unions are illegal in Burma, 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 the BLSO to operate in. 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.

During a recent strike, the factory owner called the sixteen 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 on his head.

The workers knew that the police would be after them. They hid in the brush until the BLSO could pick them up and take them to a safe house. Once all the laborers were in safety, BLSO organizers learned of their situation: not only did the factory owner still have their registration cards, but their belongings – clothes, linens, mats, etc. – were still in the factory as well. 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.

Sometimes 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 employment that may not be another exercise in exploitation.

But the 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, and this year 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. And residents of Thailand are not the only patients; 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 in a conflict-ridden area.

When I go into the sprawling, colorful Burmese market downtown with Moe Swe, it is quickly apparent that almost everyone we meet knows him well. It 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 with dignity.

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