KO TAO, Thailand — Burmese chatter resounds through the tropical gardens of upmarket resorts on the Thai island of Ko Tao, where girls with long braids and thanaka on their faces clean bungalows and boys in ethnic Shan outfits weed the pathways.
About 70 percent of Ko Tao’s tourism industry is run by Burmese waiters, cleaners, shop assistants, boatmen and even hotel and restaurant managers. “The Thais don’t want these jobs any longer. They just own the businesses and boss around their employees,” says a long-time foreign diving tour operator who adds that he prefers working with the comparatively sharp, diligent and loyal Burmese.
On the island, Thais often resort to speaking English because they rarely encounter Thai speakers. Far away from Bangkok’s political turmoil and the history of immigrant labor exploitation in northern Thailand, the situation appears quite peaceful here. At least if one discounts the dangerous and hard work that the Burmese contribute to Thailand’s fishing industry off shore.
During the tsunami in 2004 and the floods in 2011, an unknown number of illegal Burmese workers died on the affected Thai islands. Nowadays, the Burmese work legally in Ko Tao and earn close to Thai-standard salaries. Ko Thura, a waiter, stresses that the money to be made on the island is much better than in the north of Thailand. Especially with the current economic crisis, Thailand depends on immigrant labor to keep this vital industry afloat amid dwindling numbers of tourists who are discouraged by warnings from their respective foreign ministries.
“We pay 1,000 Thai baht [US$30] upon arrival and subsequently 500 Thai baht monthly for the right to work here,” says Ko Aung, another waiter. “Policemen come to collect at the resorts and restaurants.” Falling outside the purview of authorities in Bangkok, these local arrangements seem to serve everyone—the Thai police and Thai owners as well as Burmese workers, who say they feel safe and well treated.
Still, although the Burmese do not need to fear as much abuse here as they might in the sweatshops of Mae Sot, they are still wary of the police. “Fees” are paid not only for the right to drive a scooter but also by anyone caught out after 8 pm. Given the long opening hours of restaurants and bars, Ko Tao’s police officers must be making a handsome profit from immigrant laborers.
Most Burmese workers say they miss their families and their hometowns. They predominantly hail from the southern parts of Burma, such as Tenasserim Division and Mon and Karen states, and some manage to visit home about once a year.
Ma Mala, 21, sells clothes in a shop and is visibly afraid of her Thai matron boss. She misses her native Dawei and plans to return as soon as she saves some money. Others have no intention of returning; Ko Myo helps out on a boat bringing tourists for snorkeling trips. Now 23 years old, he comes from an island in southern Burma that he left as a teenager.
Unemployment and economic hardship are major push factors for migration. Even two and a half years into the reform process, Burma’s rural youth continue to go abroad in search of work. “Agencies” offer to bring them to Thailand, Malaysia and even South Korea and Japan. To go to East Asia, job seekers must pass tests and pay higher sums.
Given Burma’s nascent large-scale investment and economic development assistance, one wonders how this segment of the Burmese diaspora can be brought back. Considering the shortage of skilled, English-speaking staff in Burma’s expanding tourism industry, experience in Thailand with both Asian and expatriate tourists should be an asset. But so far, Burma’s youth are still driven away by a lack of income and an inability to acquire skills.