Migrant rights groups say that thousands of Burmese workers living in the Thai border town of Mae Sot have been prevented from leaving to search for work elsewhere in Thailand, despite possessing legal work permits that allow them to do so.
Yaung Chi Oo, a Mae Sot-based advocacy group that works to protect the rights of Burmese migrant workers, said that factory owners in the town have colluded with local Thai authorities to detain and return workers who attempt to travel to other parts of the country.
Officials from the International Organization for Migration confirmed the reports when contacted by The Irrawaddy, but declined to make a formal statement.
The groups said that the police started blocking workers six months ago in response to complaints from employers who said that they were facing labor shortages. According to official figures, there are around 40,000 Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot who are legally registered to work in Thailand.
These workers are typically paid between 60 and 100 baht (US $1.95 to $3.25) per day, far below the 226 baht ($7.35) they are entitled to under Thai law.
“The Thai employers should pay a fair wage to workers in order to solve the problem of worker shortages. They only give migrants half the pay they should receive,” said Moe Swe, the general secretary of Yaung Chi Oo.
Under Thai law, Burmese workers with legal documentation are free to work anywhere they chose in Thailand, said Moe Swe, adding that an agreement reached between the Thai and Burmese also guarantees Burmese workers the right to travel freely in Thailand.
“As far as I know, Mae Sot is the only place where they impose this restriction,” he said.
Although Thai law is also supposed to ensure that workers are fairly paid, rights groups say this rarely happens in practice. This, says Moe Swe, is why many Burmese are attempting to leave Mae Sot in search of better wages.
In one case described by Moe Swe, a factory owner in Mae Sot who recently hired 90 Burmese workers complained that two-thirds of them had “run away” within a month of starting the job.
But while the labor shortage and measures to contain it are relatively new problems, abuses of workers’ rights have existed in Mae Sot for decades, according to Andy Hall, a consultant at the Human Rights Development Foundation (HRDF) and a foreign expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok.
“The situation in Mae Sot is one of systematic and carefully planned and orchestrated migrant labor rights violations and has been for a long time now, in fact, for decades,” said Hall.
“Despite links to overseas markets and consumers who even more than Thailand should be ensuring rights of all workers in their production chains, Mae Sot export-orientated and labor-intensive factories are amongst some of the most blatant violators of worker rights in the world, with too many workers receiving no more than workers inside Myanmar and sometimes even less,” he added.
In addition to legally registered workers, rights groups estimate that there are at least 100,000 illegal workers from Burma in Mae Sot. Many of these workers earn no more than a dollar or two a day, and reports of debt bondage, forced labor and child labor are more common here than anywhere else in the country.
Some workers report getting paid nothing at all, while others say that their already low salaries are subject to numerous unlawful deductions.
“The situation in Mae Sot is generally unacceptable and there has been little genuine attempt by Thailand to address the abuse that continues there,” said Hall.
Until Thailand—and Burma—do something to stem the abuses faced by workers in Mae Sot, rights groups say the exodus to other parts of Thailand will continue no matter what the authorities do to stop it.
“As long as the Thai employers [in Mae Sot] continue to exploit workers, there will be no solution to this problem, because more people are going go to Bangkok even if they are banned from traveling,” said Moe Swe.