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Voices from Burma’s migrant path

Joseph Allchin
Dec 18, 2009 (DVB), In the town where Su was born, army conscription wasn't just for men; at a young age, troops came calling to demand either her labour or a costly waiver fee.

The experience of forced labour and the fact that the road she had forcibly built had few hopes of taking her anywhere pushed her, like so many young Burmese, to flee her country in search of prospects and hope in a foreign land. As the world today recognises the often silent masses that migrate for work, we talk to two who now form part of the essential character of modern Burma.

Su made it to Thailand through a broker, a 'trafficker' or, to many exiled Burmese, a 'travel agent'. This journey led her to a duck farm in central Thailand where she was introduced to the perils that new horizons so often bring migrants. The long hours were nothing new but she attracted the attentions of the farm supervisor; an ageing, married, Thai man.

His initial overtures were rejected but the pressure grew and he eventually raped her. Her fellow workers, many of them Burmese migrant workers themselves, at this stage demonstrated what is one of the most disemboweling aspects of the reality of migrant labour: their collective lack of rights and unity. This meant that they encouraged her to 'marry' the supervisor; in other words, submit to his advances in order to secure all of their employment futures.

She was soon 'married' to the supervisor, but this brought no relief. "There were none of the good bits of marriage; now I just had to work harder cleaning his house," she says, adding that she still had to work on the farm. She explains that there was no ceremony to their marriage – he had another wife elsewhere; this was a union of servitude as opposed to love.

She soon became pregnant and then ill. Her child was born and shortly after she noticed a twitching in her left side when she was working. She thought nothing of it but very soon the whole left side of her body was paralysed. She does not know or cannot describe what the ailment was, but she was eventually taken to a hospital. Here she met other Burmese who, on hearing her story, told her about a workers' organisation in the border town of Mae Sot called Yaung Chi Oo, where she fled to on recovery.

As dusk falls and her half Thai child plays with other children in the safe house in Mae Sot, she insists on telling me the last details of a tale I had approached with sensitivity and caution, but one that she is determined to tell.

It is a determination that is matched in many migrants' tales, which are so often a testimony not just to their own drive, endeavour and hunger to provide and succeed, but also the driving force of human economic gain. These are the people who, through remittances, bring in vital economic relief to families in places such as Burma, and they are the young people who drive the gleaming economies of places such as Thailand, the UAE and China. Yet so often all we see are the gleaming towers they build or the fine clothes that the middle classes brought for less.

And in between the weave of these glad rags the tales of people such as Wa Wa can just be heard in places like Mae Sot. Her family ran a small curry shop on the streets of Rangoon. Thirteen long years ago the family income wasn't adding up, and they raised the fee for a broker to convey Wa Wa to the mills of Mae Sot.

In a break from the sewing training she receives at Yaung Chi Oo workers association she relives some of the troubles of life as a knitter in one of Mae Sot's many sweatshops.

"I have to work from 8am to 12 noon, then have a break, then 12pm to 5pm, then 6pm to midnight. Then I have a half hour break when the factory gives us rice, then we have to work again, sometimes at 3 o'clock in the morning until 6 or 7 o'clock. Then we start all over again at 8am."

She describes this mind boggling schedule light-heartedly. It's a schedule of work that comes about when there was an order in that needed urgent action, and epitomizes the breakneck competitiveness that keeps prices low and the global economy growing.

"We just drink coffee or something like that; the boss just said if you don't like it just leave," she says. But these incredible working hours require something perhaps stronger than coffee. Moe Swe, head of Yaung Chi Oo says that workers are often secretly drugged with amphetamines. He claims to have met people who had the job of applying amphetamines to rice, soup or coffee, and also workers who claim to have felt "very fresh" after consumption.

The pay is on a per item basis, meaning the more you do, the more money you make. With no overnight fee, she has done this work since her early twenties, but has stood next to workers as young as 12. She ends up with roughly 3,000 baht ($US90) per month; roughly a dollar above the official global poverty line.

And whilst the sweatshops keep whirring to the sounds of the sewing machines, and the owners and business associates discuss how to increase output without spending more, the life of the migrant worker is never secure. The threat of being caught by the Thai police hangs over heads as if these people are burglars in a bank.

"I have been deported three times in the last ten years" Wa Wa explains. "After they arrest you they bring you to a cell beside the police station where you stay for one night. The police then take us down to the border and send us to the Burmese side by boat. When we arrive we have to pay 10,000 kyat ($US10) to the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and after that we get released and return to the Thai side".

"When we arrive at the Burmese side there is one checkpoint; if you don't pay you have to go to a forced labour camp or they send you to Naypyidaw [Burma's remote capital] or somewhere like that," she said. She suspects that the Thai police communicate with the DKBA. "They are looking for the workers when we turn up. At the checkpoint I met a woman who was begging for money, but I couldn't help because I didn't have enough money. I don't know what happened to her," she says, her voice fading.

Moe Swe confirms that he believes the Thai immigration are in communication with the powers that be on the other side of the river; it just so happens that they are the infamous DKBA. He states that the Thai's vet the migrants and provide this inventory to the DKBA so they can charge the immigrants on the basis of where they had been working. "Ones from Bangkok have to pay more" he explains; they are deemed to have earned more.

Wa Wa is grateful however that she works in a factory and not as a domestic or sex worker. "The brokers take a lot of the younger ones to be domestic workers," she says. "In the factory people can see what is happening, and people are scared of domestic work. You don't have a chance to leave, you just stay at their house, and if something goes wrong, if your boss abuses you, no one will see."

Organisation is difficult for Burmese migrants. Their illegal status abroad and the relative impotency of the Thai unions mean that factory owners have a massive amount of control over their employees. Wa Wa believes that the "employers don't like the workers to have contact with organisations like Yaung Chi Oo. They are worried that the workers will know their rights."

Wa Wa has a child back in Rangoon that she has not seen for about two years. Her mother has not been able to take him to visit her. She hopes that her labour will enable him to go to school and seek a brighter future than she has. She estimates however that she will not have earned enough until she has worked like this for another ten years.

As the sun sets on another day of life in the Burmese 'mill town' of Mae Sot, Wa Wa returns to knitting training at the organisation that employers don't want her to be a part of, in a country where she is fined by two armed groups just for living here. Meanwhile, Su returns to her child, a sweet, doting girl, a product of her exile and a proverbial silver lining. Their lives represent a human experience that, despite being very common and despite shaping the collective existence of humanity, is all too often overlooked whilst the products they produce are quietly enjoyed.

The names of both Su and Wa Wa have been changed to protect their identity.