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Myanmar migrant workers continue to flee in fear of new labour law

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Myawaddy (Myanmar): With only meagre belongings stuffed into backpacks and duffel bags, tens of thousands of Myanmar migrants have streamed home across the Thai border over the past 2 weeks.

But it is not a joyous homecoming for the truckloads of men and women, who fled Thailand in fear of a new law that hardens penalties on the millions of undocumented migrant workers underpinning its economy.

Thailand’s sudden rollout of the labour decree, which hikes up fines on unregistered workers and their employers, sent a lightning bolt of panic through migrant communities.

“If we are arrested, we will have to pay money to the police. If this happens, all of our money would disappear,” Thu Ya, who worked in a Thai plastics factory, said while preparing to cross back into Myanmar’s eastern border town of Myawaddy.

The mass exodus of migrants – estimated to be more than 60,000 – is only the latest chaos to highlight the precarious lives of migrant workers who take up difficult and dangerous jobs in Thailand’s factories and fishing boats.

Much of the workforce lacks proper documentation and lives in constant fear of exploitation from the police, bosses, and traffickers. And yet many Myanmar migrants scrambling across the border said these hardships still beat the prospect of dire poverty in their homeland, where jobs and good wages are difficult to come by.

“I will consider coming back in a legal way, with the full documents,” said Thu Ya, 32, who has spent much of his life in Thailand.

Myanmar’s new civilian government, which came to power last year, was expected to usher in a windfall of foreign investment into a resource-rich country that was closed off to the world during the former junta’s 50-year reign.

In a jubilant visit to Thailand in June 2016, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to drive the economic growth that would bring her countrymen home. But a year on, the gains have fallen short of expectations and Myanmar is still years away from offering wages that rival those in Thailand.

Economists blame the slump on a lack of clarity from the new government on its economic policies, as well as the ponderous progress in passing a new investment law. The young civilian government, stacked with political novices, faces the monumental challenge of trying to unpick the junta’s devastating economic legacy.

In the meantime, Thailand looks set to continue to be a magnet for its neighbour’s workers. Huge sections of Thailand’s economy, especially construction and food production, rely on migrants to do jobs that comparatively wealthier Thais have long since eschewed. And while the country has one of the slowest growth rates in Asia, the minimum wage of 305 baht a day is more than 3 times the equivalent in Myanmar.

Since coming to power in 2014, Thailand’s junta has unveiled a series of campaigns to clean up abuses in its migrant labour sector, which also attracts significant numbers of workers from Cambodia and Laos.

But rights groups say the drives are often shortlived and ad hoc, creating more confusion. This time was no different. Caught off-guard by the mass exodus, Thailand’s junta ruled last week to suspend its new law for 6 months.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha called for calm and reassured business owners: “Don’t panic, they will come back soon.”

Source by: Internet

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