Category Archives: Impact of Economic Crisis
About 300 disillusioned Thai workers returned home recently from Sweden carrying with them shattered dreams of earning large sums of money as berry pickers. The disenchanted workers paid almost 100,000 baht each to job placement companies that promised them well-paid jobs in the Scandinavian country earlier this year.
Late frost or global warming was blamed for the low berry yield this year and there was simply not enough fruit to generate jobs for all the workers.
The sorry tale begs a serious answer to the question of why the Labour Ministry failed to check how many workers were setting off on the trip.
Altogether, 5,950 Thai workers have travelled to Sweden to pick berries this year. That was almost double the number who went last year.
The ministry has an inescapable responsibility to check the berry output and regulate the number of workers, who go through employment brokers, seeking jobs in Sweden.
It makes a lot more sense to prevent problems than to solve them. The 300 pickers, heavily in debt from purchasing tickets and paying for accommodation, were left stranded with no agency to help.
The ministry should not have let the job brokers “export” the workers at will. They, as well as the employment seekers going to Sweden on their own, should be subject to screening.
In other words, the workers should only be permitted to leave Thai shores when the ministry can ascertain that there are jobs waiting for them at the other end.
When there are sufficient workers for the available berries, the ministry must let the public know there are no more vacancies. This would prevent people being duped or ending up in a helpless situation halfway across the world.
The story of the berry pickers and other job seekers is a real life drama about people without labour skills who “invest” everything they have in a journey they think will bring them enough riches to pay for their children’s schooling or start a small business for financial security.
Once they arrived in Sweden, the brokers’ promise of a gold rush turned out to be fool’s gold.
Phichai Ekphithakdamrong, the director-general of the Employment Department, said the low berry output was due to an act of God. True enough, but what can be controlled is the supply of labour to match the demand – and clearly, this is an area the ministry has not done terribly well in.
It should not be too difficult to check with Swedish authorities what the berry yield is going to be and make the necessary efforts to regulate the labour to be exported.
A source involved in overseas job placement said he was surprised the Labour Ministry allowed such a large number of prospective pickers to travel to Sweden.
Authorities must do much more to help balance the labour equation or the scene of hapless job seekers standing in the cold after spending the night at a local gymnasium, as was the case with the 300 Thais, is condemned to be repeated. Most of them lodged complaints with the Labour Ministry as soon as they returned.
Writer: PENCHAN CHAROENSUTHIPAN
MAP Foundation released a report, “Critical Times: Migrants and the Economy in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot.”
The report is available in MAP’s website.
BANGKOK — The global financial crisis is threatening to shred the dreams of thousands of women from Burma, who have fled their military-ruled country over the past decade for better jobs in more prosperous Thailand, say activists.
Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Burma border that has been a magnet for female migrant workers, is one area where this pain is being felt, they add. Ongoing conflicts between the military and ethnic groups and a depressed economy in Burma, also known as Myanmar, are among the reasons behind such flight across the border.
“There is growing worry among these women that they will not be able to remit part of their earnings to their families in Burma,” says Jackie Pollock, director of the Migrant Action Programme, a group lobbying for migrants’ rights in Thailand. “Entire families depend on such remittances, which are about 2,500 baht (about 75 U.S. dollars) every quarter.”
She expects this predicament to worsen as the crisis, which has resulted in the drying up of export markets in the United States, unfolds in the months ahead. “It is just starting to hit them. The families in Burma are living off what was saved from last year’s remittances.”
This economic downturn is squeezing a female labour force that is already being discriminated against by the factory owners, mostly Thais, who refuse to pay the daily minimum wage. The Burmese women who labour for hours behind sewing machines get between 60 and 80 baht a day, whereas the minimum wage set out by the Thai state for Mae Sot is 151 baht (4.57 U.S. dollars) a day.
These women make up the predominant labour force in the nearly 300 export-oriented textile and garment factories in Mae Sot, reveals a report launched Friday in Bangkok. Each factory employs 100 to 1,000 workers, while “about another 200 unregistered ‘home factories’ would employ between five and 20 workers,” says the report.
This female labour force is part of the estimated 300,000 Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot, which also provides work in other areas. That includes jobs in agriculture, construction, domestic work, call centres, the entertainment industry and on garbage sites.
In all these fields of labour, “women are shouldering a disproportionate burden,” says Soe Lin Aung, co-author of the 48-page report, ‘Critical Times—Migrants and the Economy in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot.’” A substantial number of women we surveyed—43 percent—reported a drop in their incomes.”
“Knitting factories, which produce warm clothing largely for very hard-hit US and European markets, are said to be struggling disproportionately, with demand dropping steeply,” states the report. “The local chapter of the Federation of Thai Industries claims that orders have dropped by 12 percent, and ‘the talk,’ as one report puts it, is overwhelming layoffs, reduced working hours and increased difficulty finding new jobs.”
Currently, the average monthly income for a worker in such factories hovers close to 2,500 baht, with only regular shifts available. Yet “at this time last year, which is a relatively high season, a knitting factory employee might have made 6,000 baht (182 US dollars) a month, while a garment factory worker would have made a bit more than 3,000 baht, including overtime hours,” adds the report.
“I can’t support my parents because I’m not in a good job situation. My brother and sister are also not okay û they also can’t support with any money,” says one female migrant worker interviewed for the report.
The money sent home by the migrant workers has become a vital lifeline for the families they have left behind, most of whom are elderly fathers and mothers and children too young to work.
“Over 30 people have come to work in Thailand from my village,” says Deng Lungjong, who works in the northern city of Chiang Mai, another magnet for Burmese women in search of jobs.
“There are six people in my village that are depending on the money I remit home,” the 26-year-old said in an interview. “Earlier I could remit money four times a year; now I can only send twice a year.”
The migrant workers in Mae Sot and Chiang Mai are among an estimated two million registered and unregistered migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos in Thailand. They labour in work described by labour rights groups as “dirty, dangerous and difficult.” The majority of them—over one million—are from Burma.
The plight of the migrant workers in Mae Sot—or other parts of Thailand feeling the economic pain—hardly surprises the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
“All too often migrant workers in poorly visible categories of work tend to be the shock absorbers during an economic downturn,” says Tim De Meyer, labour standards specialist at the Bangkok-based Asia office of the ILO.
In fact, the Geneva-based body did have the female migrant workers from Burma in mind when it said earlier this year that the current economic meltdown has a “woman’s face,” since women laborers are affected more severely, and differently, compared to their male counterparts.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the ILO projected that as many as 27 more people could become unemployed, pushing the total number of people in the region without jobs to 112.2 million.
And hit taken by women in this dire picture stems from the work they do: often in labour-intensive export industries like the ones in Mae Sot.
It was a similar scenario that played out a decade ago, when Southeast Asia was hit by the 1997 financial crisis, decimating once vibrant, export-driven economies. In Thailand, for instance, 95 percent of the workers laid off from the garment sector were women, according to the ILO.
But despite such a reality repeating itself in places like Mae Sot, the female migrants from Burma are reluctant to return home. “While the situation may be getting bad here, the situation is worse in Burma,” says Deng, who have been working in Thailand for 10 years. “My family at home has only me to depend on.”
By MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR / IPS WRITER
A Thailand-based activist group says migrant workers from Burma are significantly worse off than they were a year ago. The group is urging the Thai government to extend legal protections and social safety nets to migrant workers.
The Migrant Assistance Program Foundation, known as MAP, says the global economic downturn has hit migrants from Burma particularly hard.
According to research released by MAP Friday at the Bangkok press club, 70 percent of workers from Burma in two Thai cities say they are having more difficulty finding work. And while the cost of living has gone up, 30 percent say their wages were cut during the past year.
The report says factory workers have suffered the worst as exports have dropped with low foreign demand.
Soe Lin Aung is one of the authors of the report. He says MAP is asking the Thai government to fully integrate migrants into the social security system and to include them in economic recovery packages.
“We’re also asking that they monitor and enforce relevant labor laws along the lines of working hours, minimum wage, and severance pay,” he said. “The Thai government should lift travel restrictions for migrants. If we allow migrants to move more freely they can have an easier time of locating safe and secure employment, which is good for migrants and it’s good for the economy frankly because then the migrant worker population can be more responsive to changing economic conditions if they can move more freely.”
Soe Lin Aung says the group is also asking the Thai government to stop threatening to deport illegal migrants, which he said would help build a more inclusive society.
Most of the migrant workers in Thailand are undocumented and risk exploitation from employers.
The MAP report says women from Burma have been affected more than men. Many female migrants in Thailand work as household maids.
Deng Lungjong represents a migrant domestic worker group in Chiang Mai. She says employers have stopped paying benefits and annual wage increases and some are even withholding pay.
But, despite the worsening job situation in Thailand, she says they are not encouraging migrant workers to stay in Burma.
She says they do not discourage friends to come to Thailand because whatever the situation is like here it is worse in Burma. She says there is no work in Burma, whereas in Thailand there are still bits and pieces.
The MAP research was based on interviews, focus groups and survey results from more than four-hundred migrants from Burma working in the northern Thai cities of Mae Sot and Chiang Mai.
Some 300,000 to 400,000 migrant workers from Burma work in the two cities, mainly in agriculture, construction, and factories.
By Daniel Schearf