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Burmese migrant workers are on strike in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. They say they are being held in bonded labour, and that their employer is holding their passports, forcing them to work for as little as 270 Thai baht (US$8) per day. That is half of Thailand’s legal minimum wage.
The striking workers say they are often not paid for months on end, despite them being due their wage on a fortnightly basis.
Forty Burmese workers say they are trapped on the site. With no documents and no money, they have little other choice. They say twenty others did manage to reclaim their passports, and have since returned to Burma.
“I want to get my passport back,” says one infuriated worker. “The owner has been delaying our pay, telling us it will come today or tomorrow. We want to get paid regularly and we want to keep our passports.”
Women have it hardest, as the lowest-paid workers on the site. Their meager pay offers little else than run-down temporary houses in the centre of Thailand’s second largest city.
“Today, nobody goes to work because we were not paid,” says a striking female worker. “We, the women, get 170 baht. The owner has kept our passports for about three months. He said he would give them back, but he still hasn’t.”
Often it takes a local workers’ rights watchdog to pressure owners to pay migrant labourers.
Chiang Mai-based migrant rights activist Johny Adhikari said the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok should be capable of stamping out abuse such as this.
“There are officers in the [Burmese] embassy appointed by the government for assisting migrant workers,” he said.
“They should come and investigate, and they should help the workers to get their rights and salaries. The migrants should not be paid only 170- 200 baht when the Thai minimum wage for a worker is 300 baht.”
“I want the [Burmese] embassy to know what is happening here.”
The Thai economy hinges on some two million Burmese living and working in the country. However, after the Thai military took power in a bloodless coup in May, a crackdown on Burmese migrants in Chiang Mai saw many deported home. The junta has since pledged to care for Burmese migrant workers.
They have extended the time frame for unregistered migrant workers to obtain documents, and have set up offices to process claims in one step.