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Migrant labour: invaluable, but reviled

In Thailand, Burmese migrants are rounded up daily and pushed back into Burma. A new study suggests that migrants actually strengthen the economy of countries where they settle.

As Thailand's recession bites deeper, and its relationship with Burma deteriorates over territorial disputes and drug-trafficking, it is Thailand's Burmese migrants who are bearing the brunt of the difficulties.

Like many migrants elsewhere they are seen increasingly as an evil to be stamped out. Although Thailand has long been a haven for Burmese migrants, thousands of illegal workers are now rounded up daily and pushed back into Burma.

Those that remain face a government which is determined to employ retrenched Thai workers rather than foreign labour.

Several experts in Thailand and Britain are challenging this populist response, arguing that migration benefits host countries.

Arjan de Haan, an academic and advisor to the British government's Department for International Development who has studied migration worldwide, says in a recent paper Migrants, Livelihoods and Rights that migration is a positive process because migrants "contribute much to the economy of the host society".

He is critical of popular images of migrants as profiteers and calls for a "positive view" of migration that recognises the rights and contributions of migrants.

Of Thailand's over one million migrant workers, 800,000 are from Burma. According to Department of Labour estimates, the total economic contribution made by registered Burmese migrants to the Thai economy was 99 million Baht ($2.2 million) in 2000.

Dr Krittaya Achvanichkul, a Thai specialist in migration issues at the Institute of Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, agrees with de Haan. "The average person does not see the economic contribution of the migrant workers because of our volatile history with Burma, because of the media. Even policy makers only think of migrants in terms of the problems they create – crime, disease. But this is not true."

"Prior to economic crisis, it has been proven that certain sectors of the economy – fisheries, agriculture and construction – need migrant workers. Thai workers do not want to engage in this kind of work," she says.

Since the South East Asian financial crisis hit Thailand in mid-1997, the economy has shown no signs of improvement, as workers continue to lose jobs and the cost of living steadily rises. Today, one in every six Thais lives below the poverty line.

Despite the economic situation, most Thais still do not wish to fill in the gaps occupied by Burmese workers. The government has tried to replace migrants with Thai workers but this effort has been far from successful.

Surichai Wun'gaeo, political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, explains, "A plan to reduce the standard weight of rice bags from 100 to 50 kilos failed miserably in attracting Thais to take up [rice transporting] jobs. In the fishing business, week-long workshops catered specially to Thais saw a rapid dwindling in the number of participants, from the original 82 to seven, and zero when the time came to actual boarding [the boats]."

Dr Achvanichkul believes that it is the Thai business community that has benefited most from Burmese migrants – "but business has provided the least support."

Many industries in Thailand developed because of the profits made by employing cheap exploitable labour, say the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) in their report Dignity Denied.

They cite examples in fishing, canning, garment production, rubber, fruit orchards, domestic work, small parts and assembly work.

Some in Thailand are calling for new legislation to protect migrant workers.

Somchai Homlaor, a human rights lawyer with the Bangkok-based nongovernmental organisation Forum Asia, says that migrants are vulnerable to exploitation because they are not covered by Thai labour law – only 10 per cent of Burmese migrants are legally registered.

"All migrant workers – both legal and illegal – should be guaranteed basic rights under the Labour Protection Law," he says.

"The Law would give Burmese workers the same benefits as Thai workers – a minimum wage, health and employment benefits and other social security measures. Not only are Burmese workers paid less than a third of the wages paid to their Thai counterparts, but they are also regularly harassed, deported, and women subjected to physical and sexual abuse," he says.

Despite the harassment, the benefits of working in Thailand are still greater than the risks involved. One migrant worker describes what happened when police raided the garments factory where he works in Mae Sot, northern Thailand. He prefers to remain anonymous.

"We and other workers were staying in the fields fearing such raids, but they found us, burnt our huts and all our belongings. We ran away, but those caught had to hand over all their money and were then dumped on the Burma side of the border."

He along with the other workers have made their way back to the factory to resume work, till the next time they are swooped down upon by the authorities.

Widowed Nang Tong (not her real name) is an ethnic Shan woman working illegally in a garment factory in Chiang Mai. With a large family to support, and debts to pay off, she came to Thailand alone in search of a job.

She is lucky she has a supportive employer, but she's still worried. "Every day there is news of Shan and other workers being arrested and deported. It makes me feel terrible. Why doesn't the [Thai] government help us. If the Burmese, the Laos and the Cambodians don't do this kind of work who will? It would be good if all of us could be registered. Then we would not be so vulnerable."

De Haan thinks that providing a "supportive environment" for migrants by granting legal status will actually help host societies in the long run because migrants will be able to "build up their own means of existence".

In an attempt to mollify its critics, the government is considering a plan to allow illegal migrants the right to register themselves and legally stay and work in Thailand. But experts say the cost of registration is too high for most workers, and employers are unwilling to help out. They would rather keep their labour cheap and not comply with labour laws.

Many fear that forced repatriation of those without legal documents will continue until political tensions lessen or the economy picks up again. Since they are useful, they will be encouraged to come back again – at a time and at prices that suit those in positions of power.

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