CHIANG MAI, Thailand — More than 100 Burmese migrant workers at the Lee Heng Seafood company in Songkhla, southern Thailand, planned to return to work on Wednesday after staging a two-day strike to demand that their employer compensate them for unpaid overtime work.
Along with about a dozen Cambodian workers, 142 Burmese migrant laborers stopped working this week, claiming that they had been forced to work overtime without pay for months.
The laborers came to work at the seafood factory with the terms of their employment laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), but they say rights guaranteed in the document, including provisions on overtime pay and healthcare benefits, were not being honored.
“We only demand that they pay us the full overtime payment, despite the fact that there are some other violations from the industry, such as [a lack of] healthcare benefits,” said Ma Wah, who has been working at the factory for five years.
Ma Wah said it was female Burmese migrant workers who had borne the brunt of what amounted to forced labor over the last six months.
“On Monday morning, we stopped working, and instead sat in front of the manager’s office in the industry compound and raised our demands,” said Ma Wah, adding that their demand for overtime pay was not met.
“The manager said we can leave if we are not satisfied with his answer, but we would not get any of the compensation described in the contract,” added another worker, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation.
The workers have complained that irregular working hours have also made home life difficult. Their labor contract states that normal working hours are from 8am to 5pm, and that any work outside of those hours would be regarded as overtime.
Under Thai law, the standard daily wage is 300 baht (US$9), and overtime is paid at 56 baht per hour. The workers said that since about six months ago, they have been paid 300 baht per day, but have not been compensated for any overtime. They say management has justified the failure to pay by claiming that there were times during regular working hours when the employees had no work to do and sat idle.
“We usually work every day from 8 am to 8 pm,” said Ma Wah. “The managers would call us [into work] some days at about 3 pm and the eight hours’ working time is counted from this time. So we had to work until 10 pm or 11 pm.
“We said not to do like that. When we go to work in the morning at 8 am, some days the manger and supervisors said they would come and call us when the raw seafood materials arrived,” added Ma Wah, explaining that the workers live in the same compound as the factory is located. “The time that the material arrives varies from day to day. This did not happen under previous managers.”
The Burmese workers came to Lee Heng Seafood from Kawthaung, a town in southern Burma’s Tenasserim Division, via the employment agency Royal Golden Gate. Many of the workers have been sent by the Rangoon-based agency under one-year contract agreements.
“When we arrived to the factory, some points in the contract agreement were no longer consistent,” the anonymous male worker said. “We are now told to work under a two-year contract, and if we leave before two years, the workers have to reimburse money for their passport fees.”
A common practice among Thai companies that employ labor from Burma is to pay for the issuance of workers’ temporary passports and deduct the money from their salary over time.
The workers said some laborers had already left Lee Heng Seafood due to the labor conditions, and were required to pay 3,000 baht for the return of their passports, on top of management having already taken at least 12,000 baht from their salaries for the cost of the passports.
Lee Heng Seafood did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Burmese labor rights groups including the Foundation for Education and Development, the Migrant Association in Thailand and the Migrant Assistance Program are helping the workers to negotiate their demands with the employer.
On Tuesday, Htoo Chit, the director of the Foundation for Education and Development, told The Irrawaddy that the coalition has been in talks with Thai labor protection officials about the situation at the seafood processing factory.
“We encouraged them [the striking workers] to raise their demands in accordance with Thai labor law, so we advised them to get back to work,” Htoo Chit said.
The workers said they would return to work on Wednesday, because Thai labor law stipulates that any contractual benefits are forfeited by workers who participate in a strike lasting more than two days.
“We have to get back to work after two days of protest, even though we have not yet gotten any of our demands. But, we will maintain our demands,” said another worker, Ko Aung.
“In the meantime, we are helping them to get to talk with the officials,” Htoo Chit said.
Thai labor officials met with Lee Heng Seafood representatives on Tuesday evening, but not with the workers.