RANGOON—A leading migrant rights activist said 10 percent of Burma’s labor force currently works abroad as laborers, adding that there is an urgent need to improve the Burmese government’s migration policies so that it can better regulate migrant labor and protect workers.
Andy Hall, a British migrant labor expert at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, said reducing violations of migrant’s rights should be a major government priority as so many of the country’s 60 million people work abroad.
“It’s a big issue for Myanmar, 10 percent of the workers are overseas; 10 percent of Myanmar’s population is huge. But the capacity of the government to manage those [migrant flows] is very constrained,” he said.
“I think the government is giving increased effort towards improving the management of migration, but there is still a long way to go,” he added.
Hall was speaking on the sidelines of an EU-funded workshop in Rangoon on Friday, where officials of the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security met with UN agencies, the International Labor Organization, migrant advocates and migrant laborers.
Hall said the two-day event was meant to inform the ministry as it seeks to develop new migrant labor policies and management, and build up the knowledge levels of its staff.
“It’s also very important that the government works with the workers, the workers are key. If they don’t agree then you can’t have a migration policy,” he said.
Deputy Director-General Myo Aung from the ministry’s labor department acknowledged in an interview that the government’s capacity to regulate the massive flows of migrant labor and to advocate for the rights of millions of workers abroad was limited.
“We need more human resources and skills in order to have better policies and laws in our department,” he said, adding that the Thai government should do more to help to protect the Burmese workers there.
Myo Aung said there were “a lot of abuses” of workers in Thailand. “To bring dignity to Burmese people who are in Thailand, I think they should give them one-year work permits,” he added.
There are believed to be between 2 and 3 million Burmese migrants in Thailand and many of them are unregistered workers, making them vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous Thai employers. A smaller number of Burmese work in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.
Thailand and Burma have been trying to reach a bilateral agreement over how these millions of migrants can be officially registered and given Burmese identity papers and Thai working permits. Burma has requested more time to issue identity paper to its workers, but Thailand has been reluctant to do so.
The so-called Nationality Verification process has also been plagued by bureaucratic problems and accusations that it requires workers to pay bribes to corrupt officials, pushing them further into debt bondage with their employers.
After decades of economic stagnation under military rule Burma offers limited employment opportunities and many Burmese migrate to Thailand via unofficial channels to perform cheap labor in the Thai fishery, garment and construction industries, or to work as domestic servants.