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ျမန္မာစာမ်က္ႏွာ | Myanmar Peace Monitor
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Vulnerable workers

Advocacy group pushes for solution to migrant workers’ plight

The number of Myanmar workers in Thailand with expired visas has reached 200,000 and is growing by up to 1,000 a day, says the director of the Migrant Worker Rights Network, U Sein Htay.

Workers waiting to go to South Korea. Many Myanmar citizens leave the country to go to Thailand and other countries in search of work. CREDIT Hong Sar Workers waiting to go to South Korea. Many Myanmar citizens leave the country to go to Thailand and other countries in search of work. CREDIT Hong Sar

“Neither the Thai or Myanmar governments took action before these visas expired and they haven’t taken action yet; they have not started the extension process,” U Sein Htay told Mizzima Business Weekly in an interview in the MWRN’s Yangon office on March 17.

There are between 2.5 million and 3 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, of whom 1.7 million completed a joint Thai/Manmar national verification process involving government officials from both countries between June 2009 and August 2013. A 2003 bilateral memorandum of understanding on cooperation in worker employment provided for these workers to receive a temporary Myanmar passport, valid only for travel to Thailand, as well as a two-year Thai visa, extendable for two years, and a Thai work permit.

Since June 2013, migrant workers whose visas have expired have had the option of completing a new national verification process – requiring a family registration certificate and an ID card – in order to receive a permanent passport.

In a statement released last month, the MWRN said many workers, most of whom are from rural areas, have never had such documents and are often registered under different names.

“Things like social security benefits and motor bike registration in Thailand may disappear for these people if they have to go through another verification process for a permanent passport,” said MWRN migrant assistance coordinator U Phyoe Wai Htun.

Migrant workers with expired visas who want to apply for a permanent passport face a complicated process. U Sein Htay said they must submit their documents through their employer to Thailand’s Labour Ministry. It sends their documents to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok for verification before they are sent to Nay Pyi Taw. The documents are then sent from the capital to the applicant’s village to be checked by local officials. If the applicant’s identify is verified, the documents are sent back to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok with permission to issue the passport.

“Who these village officials are and how they receive the documents is unclear,” said U Sein Htay. “Obviously corruption is possible during this process; this is mission impossible.”

The cost of this process can be as high as US$200 (about K193,000) and U Sein Htay believes it is too complicated for most migrant workers to navigate on their own. For those who are capable of negotiating their way through the bureaucracy, there is another obstacle.

“If you do this process by yourself it won’t happen; the brokers have networks and know government officers,” U Sein Htay said. The cost of completing the process with the aid of a broker can be as high as $500.

U Sein Htay spent 17 years working in Thailand before founding the Migrant Worker Rights Network in Samut Sakhon, a seafood processing centre about 35 kilometres west of Bangkok, in 2009. The Yangon office opened in 2013.

U Sein Htay, who first arrived in Thailand illegally by boat, understands the plight of migrant workers.

“After we left my hometown, Mawlamyine, the boat broke down and luckily we found an island nearby; we could have died.” he said. “We arrived in Ranong in southern Thailand and drove north, picking up many other [illegal] migrants on the way. We had to walk through the jungle to avoid immigration checkpoints and eventually arrived in Samut Sakhon.”

U Sein Htay spent almost four years working in various jobs: on building sites, in a tuna factory, peeling shrimp and, finally, on a fishing boat.

“Sometimes the employer is good, but the situation is dangerous because of gangsters or police,” he said. “I had to learn about how to move around and get from place to place by myself to avoid broker fees but sometimes that wasn’t possible.”

U Phyoe Wai Htun said permanent passports could result in more business for brokers and more opportunities for exploitation.

“The brokers will advertise that they can send migrant workers to countries like [South] Korea or Japan or somewhere with a better situation,” he said. “The uneducated migrant worker will believe them and then we have a trafficking case.”

“The migrant worker faces problem after problem after problem,” said U Sein Htay. “They just worry; they try to solve problems legally or illegally just to reach stability.”

Since March 1, migrant workers in Thailand from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia have faced another issue: a law enacted by the Ministry of Labour requiring the collection of 1,000 baht from migrant workers’ salaries to be paid into a “deportation fund” to cover any costs due to unlawful overstay.

“These migrant workers with expired visas used a huge amount of money to get temporary passports,” said U Sein Htay. “Now they are illegal again and they don’t believe either government because no one is responding to help them. They sit and wait like I did 20 years ago when Myanmar was a closed country and there were only illegal [migration] options.”

As the number of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand with expired visas continues to rise, the MWRN is pushing for migrant workers not to be forced to apply for a permanent Myanmar passport. It also wants the Myanmar and Thai governments to allow workers to renew or extend temporary passports and has called for processing centres for visa extensions and passport renewal or extension to be opened near areas with high migrant populations.

While continuing to put pressure on the Myanmar government to enact a policy for safe migration, the MWRN continues to hold “pre-departure” training for future migrant workers before they leave for Thailand. “We tell them how to avoid deportation and we warn them about trafficking,” said U Sein Htay. “Our objective, our highest hope, is safe migration for Myanmar workers.”