Category Archives: Safe Migration

Maid about the house

A new report from the UN makes a strong case for respecting the rights of migrant domestic workers

IN THAILAND as in other countries of the region, employing domestic workers has long been a cultural and social practice as much as an economic one. In the past, such jobs were routinely filled by girls from the provinces and while often overworked and grossly underpaid, they were usually absorbed into the family, which provided them with some kind of security away from their own loved ones.

Today, domestic work has all but been taken over by migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, most of them in the country illegally. They too in many cases become part of the family but unlike their Thai peers have no security and few, if any rights.

Their plight is addressed in a research study recently launched by the United Nations Women Regional Office for Asia and Pacific in Bangkok. The publication, entitled “Worker, Helper, Auntie, Maid?”: Working conditions and attitudes experienced by migrant domestic workers in Thailand and Malaysia” makes the point that while there is nothing wrong with these workers becoming “fictive kin” – the term used to describe non-familial relationships – they should also be protected by an employment contract that recognises their human and labour rights.

The report makes for interesting and eye-opening reading. On the statistical side, it notes that approximately 73.4 per cent of all migrant domestic workers are women. The Asia and Pacific region is home to the largest percentage of domestic workers, making up more than 40 per cent of the global total. The region also hosts the largest share of women migrant domestic workers, at 24 per cent of the global total.

In Thailand, of the 250,000 migrant domestic workers from Laos, Myanmar Cambodia and Vietnam, many are unregistered and without a work permit. These housekeepers, nannies and caregivers are often caught between immigration law and employment law and excluded from labour rights and protections. As a consequence they are vulnerable to exploitative and unfair conditions.

In Thailand, employment conditions of domestic workers are mainly governed through labour laws. In Malaysia, however, immigration law is the principle instrument of governance, with labour law as a secondary focus.

Few Thai employers feel that a written contract is an appropriate right for a domestic worker, preferring to integrate them as part of the family – indeed, only seven percent of migrant domestic workers surveyed here had a written contract.

By contrast in Malaysia, even respondents who felt that domestic workers should be treated as part of the family were supportive of written contracts, which can be put down to the fact that contracts are associated with immigration requirements and explicitly tie workers to employers.

For the workers themselves, close relationships with their employees are governed by emotion and reciprocity rather than a contract. And, of course, these emotional aspects have a considerable impact on their experiences.

Perhaps that explains in part why workers surveyed for the study expressed a lack of enthusiasm for contracts, associating them with a lack of  freedom to leave their job, thus affecting their ability to change employers. A less surprising finding was that up to 90 per cent of migrant domestic workers in both countries are paid below the minimum wage.

“People treat you badly when they think that you have no choice,” says one Myanmar domestic worker interviewed for the report. Another, also from Myanmar, says, “They say if they give high salary, it won’t be a family any more”. A domestic worker from the Philippines has similar grievances; “I won’t complain. If I complain they won’t let me go out. When I go out at least I can find another employer.”

William Gois, representative of the Migrant Forum in Asia, says that change must begin from the workers themselves. “While history tells us that they struggle even if they work together to claim their rights, the ‘informed’ sector of society, such as feminist groups in Thailand for example, can bring their cases into the light.

“The close family environment is often created because the employer wants to hide something. He or she is worried that the migrant domestic workers will give away the family’s secrets or that they will run away with a boyfriend and leave the family in the lurch. This has to stop. Employers must create more space for the domestic workers, ensure they have days off and allow them to have a phone,” Gois continues.

“We need to deconstruct this ‘being part of the family’ mentality. It is symptomatic of the patriarchal system that can be traced back to the colonial period. We have to stop this attitude of ‘benevolent employer caring for someone with lower status’. It’s all very well to say, ‘well, she’s part of the family’ but you would never see a family member with this kind of job description. The employer is bringing an outsider into the family home so yes, it is important to build trust and confidence but in return the work space and the dignity of work that the domestic worker does must also be recognised.”

The findings and recommendations of the UN Women’s study are backed up by a 2011 Master Degree’s Thesis prepared by Ekachai Eutanpisit for the Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University. Titled “Maids, Migrant Domestic Workers in Thai Households and State Protection”, it points out that the exploitation of maids raises questions about the state’s effectiveness in embracing laws and the governmental mechanism in protecting the rights of this group of workers. The expansion of the role of working women and the greater economic value that this implies has given birth to a need for low-paid female migrants to take over the housekeeping duties. While many are treated well, their poor working and living conditions are often ignored by employers and government agencies, the international labour organisation and state mechanisms ineffectively regulate the power of employers in private homes.

Ruchika Bahl, regional programme manager – migration, says blame should also be placed on the media for painting such a negative image of migrant workers.

One of the key findings in the publication to come out of the press analysis was the strikingly strong association made between “immigration” and “illegality” in such English-language newspapers as Malaysia’s New Straits Times and Thailand’s The Nation.

The negative images and discourses disseminated in the media contribute to creating a hostile environment workers, the report states, adding that in both Thailand and Malaysia, employers surveyed associated migrants with crime and were concerned about their potential as domestic workers.

Some of these embedded stereotypes and damaging images need to be challenged. One potential avenue for such change could be through the inclusion of the voices of migrant workers themselves rather than relying solely on police and other officials.

Ultimately, the publication proposes that laws and policies regulating migrant domestic workers’ employment experiences be brought in line with relevant international standards, including ILO Convention No 189. In the Asean bloc, the only country to have ratified it is the Philippines. In addition, employers and the public need to be educated more broadly about the rights and contributions of migrant domestic workers, emphasising that treating someone as “part of the family” should include respecting their human and labour rights.

By: Kupluthai Pungkanon, The Nation

Published on: 12 Janurary, 2017

Duped Workers Detain Suspected Con Man in Phnom Penh, The Cambodia Daily

A group of 90 disgruntled workers protested Tuesday outside the office of a recruitment company that they say abandoned most of them at a border checkpoint on Saturday morning and cheated them out of the hundreds of dollars they had paid to work in Thailand.

The workers, who had registered with Chin Vanda Manpower, arrived outside the firm’s Sen Sok district office Tuesday morning after 63 of them were left at a guesthouse at the Duong International Checkpoint in Battambang province by a fixer named Seng Salen, according to 35-year-old worker Douch Phors.

“We waited a long time at the border without hearing any good news, then we realized that the company had cheated us,” Mr. Phors said. “I know they cheated me because they just brought us to the border without the border documents and the representative lied and then he fled.”

The workers—who said they had made payments of between $250 and $400 to the company, which was run by Chin Vanda—returned by bus to Phnom Penh on Sunday and Monday after they realized Mr. Salen was not coming back for them, Mr. Phors said. The group arrived at the firm’s office Tuesday to find it empty and the company’s logo removed.

Calls made to the company’s phone number Tuesday went unanswered.

However, as the workers were standing outside the office, some of them spotted Mr. Salen riding his motorcycle and detained him, according to Chhang Moa, a 28-year-old worker.

“This morning we saw Mr. Salen driving his motorbike by chance, then we arrested him,” he said.

Speaking to a reporter while surrounded by the workers, Mr. Salen denied conning the group and claimed he did not return to the guesthouse because he had not received the payment from Mr. Vanda for the workers’ visas and other expenses.

“My boss said he would transfer the money to me to pay the guesthouse and for food for the migrant workers but he kept delaying the time to transfer the money,” Mr. Salen said. “I didn’t go back to meet with the migrant workers because my boss did not transfer the money to me.”

Contacted later Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Phors said he had driven Mr. Salen to the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, and that they had detained him.

Officials at the department could not be reached.

By: Buth Kimsay, Tha Cambodia Daily

Published on: 23 September 2015

Lao Migrants To Be Witnesses in Thai Human Trafficking Case, RFA

Thirteen migrant Lao workers rescued last week by Thai police and military officers from a pig farm outside Bangkok where they were kept in slave-like conditions will be witnesses in a human trafficking case against their employer, a police official involved in the case said.

When officers raided the pig and chicken farm on Aug. 22 in the Muang district of Nakhon Pathom province, they found the Lao farmhands confined to areas with metal bars that resembled animal cages.

“In two months, the lawsuit will be drawn up and submitted to the court, which will take about four to five months to consider the case and investigate witnesses for the prosecution,” Thanee Pookpanich, head of the Sam Kwai Pheuk Police Station in Muang district, told RFA’s Lao Service.

Thai police found the group after two workers escaped and notified authorities. One of the escapees, Chanon Saenkaeo, 25, said the Lao workers were beaten, forced to work all day without pay, and had to defecate in plastic bags because the cages they were kept in had no toilets, Thai media reported.

Some also had sustained head injuries from beatings by Thai staff, but were denied medical treatment, he said.

Authorities have transferred the 12 male workers to a witness protection center for victims of human trafficking in Pathum Thani province, while the one female worker was sent to Kredtarakarn Protection and Occupational Development Center in Nonthaburi province, Thai media reported. Nine of them are between 15 and 18 years old.

“Now that the workers are physically well and their welfare is being protected, it’s no problem,” said the director of the Pathumthani Provincial Protection and Occupational Development Center, who only gave his surname, Pongsak. “I am working on the operation process, but cannot give more details about it.”

Investigators have determined that the 13 Laotians illegally obtained jobs at the pig farm through a job broker, reports said.

One Laotian, who refused to give his name, said he landed at the farm three months ago after he paid the job broker 5,000 baht (U.S.$140) to smuggle him into Thailand for work, according to Thai media reports. He said he was promised a salary of 7,000 baht (U.S. $196), but never received any money.

Chaidet Sonut, 55, owner of the pig farm who is also a manager of a Krung Thai Bank branch in Nakhon Pathom province, was arrested last Saturday and faces charges of human trafficking and detaining, assaulting, and giving shelter to illegal immigrant workers.

He denied all charges and was released on 500,000-baht (U.S. $14,013) bail on Sunday, Thai media reported.

Criticism from rights groups

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has publicly vowed strict enforcement of anti-human trafficking laws and cooperation with international organizations to stop the crime.

But human rights groups and western countries continue to criticize Thailand for failing to stamp out slave labor and trafficking people from neighboring countries, including Laos.

The United States placed Thailand in the lowest ranking for the second consecutive year in its annual global trafficking report issued in July, citing the country’s serious failure to combat the crime and longstanding practice of recruiting people from neighboring countries to work on fishing boats where they subsequently are subjected to forced labor on Thai-owned vessels in international waters.

Lao men and boys who seek work outside the country are often trafficked to Thailand through brokers who charge high fees, then face forced labor conditions in the country’s fishing, construction, and agricultural industries, the report said.

A Lao researcher who specializes in migrant workers and youth development told RFA that many of the Laotians who go to Thailand to work do so because they believe the international experience increases their social value back in landlocked Laos. Contrary to popular belief, they are not poor and are well aware that they are at risk for human trafficking, he said.

“Social value is one factor that convinces them to work in Thailand because they absorb it from the media, and when they come back home, they appear to be more valuable compared to other people in their communities,” said the researcher who declined to give his name.

As for the case of the 13 Laotians discovered at the Thai pig farm, he said it was impossible that Chaidet Sonut, the farm’s owner, was uneducated and unfamiliar with Thailand’s law on human trafficking of 2008, because of his position as a bank manager.

“I am afraid this problem [human trafficking] will get worse when the ASEAN Economic Community is fully integrated,” he said, referring to the regional bloc’s aspirations to create a single market with the free flow of goods, services, investments, capital and skilled labor by 2020.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Published on 28 August 2015

53 Migrants Detained After Thai Trafficking Bust

RANGOON — Scores of refugees are in detention after being rescued by Thailand’s anti-human trafficking police from a rubber plantation just north of Phuket in Thailand’s Phang Nga province.

The 53 men were found by police in an early morning raid on Saturday. Two male Thai nationals have been arrested on charges of human trafficking.

Many of the victims were Rohingya Muslims who lived in refugee camps in Bangladesh after fleeing communal violence and other forms of persecution in western Burma’s Arakan State. Some of the victims, however, said that they were from Bangladesh.

The group was reportedly intercepted by human traffickers after setting off by boat to seek jobs in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Htoo Chit, executive director of Thailand-based migrant rights group Foundation for Education and Development, met the trafficking victims in a Phang Nga detention center.

“When I went to meet them,” said Htoo Chit, “some of them showed me their cards from UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency], which prove that they are from Myanmar [Burma]. They moved to the Bangladesh border because they could stay there as refugees, as they had many difficulties [in Burma].”

The men were taken into police custody at around 4 am on Saturday morning, he said, adding that another group of about 30 refugees were also discovered and detained on the same day.

Thirty-seven people—including an unknown number of women—were detained earlier this month in a similar operation.

Most of the victims will remain in police custody until they can be repatriated, said Htoo Chit, but those who have identified themselves as Rohingya may face longer detention as they are not citizens of either Burma or Bangladesh.

Victims said that they had initially left Bangladesh on a small boat, after being promised jobs in Malaysia by an employment broker. The risky voyage across the Andaman Sea is common this time of year, as the monsoon season winds die down and waters are less volatile.

The journey can be deadly nonetheless; many migrants and refugees die en route as the small, poorly equipped boats frequently capsize or run out of supplies. Those that complete the journey run other risks, such as being intercepted by human traffickers.

Some of the victims detained on Saturday told Htoo Chit that they were transferred from their small boat to a bigger one, which idled in the sea waiting for the refugees to arrive.

“They told me that it took them 19 days to get from Bangladesh to Thailand. They had to stop several times along the way. They spent five days on a small Thai Island, and then they went to the plantation where they were supposed to be taken by car to Malaysia,” he said.

While the dangerous voyage has become increasingly common over the past two years—after communal violence tore apart communities, claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than 100,000 people—Saturday’s incident had some alarming distinctions.

At least one victim said that he was neither an asylum seeker nor an economic refugee. A man wishing to be referred to simply as Mohamed told Htoo Chit that his hands were bound and he was forced to get on the boat, indicating that some of the victims may have been kidnapped.

Other media reports have cited similar accounts. Agence France-Presse cited an anonymous Thai official saying that, “Some of them were knocked out with anesthetic and taken to the boat, some were tricked … but they did not intend to come to Thailand.”

Htoo Chit described the victims, who still face an indeterminate detention in the crowded Thai facility, as malnourished and weak.

“All of them look very tired, like their bodies have not had enough food,” he said. “They were lying on the floor when we got there.”

More than 140,000 people, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, were displaced by several rounds of communal riots that began in Arakan State in June 2012. Most are still living in crowded displacement camps where they are systematically denied access to basic health care, education and other resources. Chronically dire conditions for displaced persons have led many to flee again; some seek asylum in Bangladesh, while many others head south to seek refuge in Malaysia.

The United Nations estimated in June 2014 that more than 86,000 people had attempted the perilous route across the Andaman Sea since June 2012. Newer UN data claims that more than 20,000 have made the trip since the start of 2014 alone.

By: Lawi Weng, The Irrawaddy

Thailand faces U.S. consequences if human trafficking subsists, Las Vegas Review-Journal

AMBON, Indonesia — He was too sick to eat, and Min Min Chan’s chest ached with each breath he sucked. It didn’t matter: The Thai captain warned him to get back on deck and start hauling fish onto the trawler or be tossed overboard. As a 17-year-old slave stuck in the middle of the sea, he knew no one would come looking if he simply vanished.

Less than a month earlier, Chan had left Myanmar for neighboring Thailand, looking for work. Instead, he said a broker tricked and sold him onto the fishing boat for $616. He ended up far away in Indonesian waters before even realizing what was happening.

Tens of thousands of invisible migrants like Chan stream into Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, every year. Many are used as forced labor in various industries, especially on long-haul fishing boats that catch seafood eaten in the U.S. and around the world. Others are dragged into the country’s booming sex industry. Ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers from neighboring Myanmar are also held for ransom in abysmal jungle camps.

Next week, when a U.S. report on human trafficking comes out, Thailand may be punished for allowing that exploitation. The country has been on a U.S. State Department human trafficking watch list for the past four years. Washington warned in last year’s report that without major improvements, it would be dropped to the lowest rung, Tier 3, joining the ranks of North Korea, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe.

Though Thailand says it is trying to prevent such abuses and punish traffickers, its authorities have been part of the problem. The U.S. has said the involvement of corrupt officials appears to be widespread, from protecting brothels and workplaces to cooperating directly with traffickers.

A downgrade could lead the U.S. to pull back certain forms of foreign support and exchange programs as well as oppose assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank. Washington has already cut some assistance to Bangkok following last month’s Thai military coup.

Thailand is paying a U.S. public relations company $51,000 a month to help in its push for better standing. The government issued a progress report for 2013, noting that investigations, prosecutions and the budget for anti-trafficking work all are on the rise.

“We recognize that it’s a very serious, very significant problem, and we’ve been building a legal and bureaucratic framework to try to address these issues,” said Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Thailand’s ambassador to the U.S. “We feel that we have turned a corner and are making great progress in this area.”

At least 38 Thai police were punished last year or are being investigated for alleged involvement in trafficking, but none has stood trial yet. Four companies have been fined, and criminal charges against five others are pending. But the government pulled the licenses of only two of the country’s numerous labor recruitment agencies.

In Geneva on Wednesday, Thailand was the only government in the world to vote against a new U.N. international treaty that combats forced labor by, among other things, strengthening victims’ access to compensation. Several countries abstained.

“Thailand tries to portray itself as the victim while, at the same time, it’s busy taking advantage of everybody it can who’s coming through the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The exploitation of migrants, the trafficking, it comes through Thailand because people know they can pay people in the government and in the police to look the other way.”

————

Chan’s story is a common nightmare. A recruiter showed up in his village in Myanmar, also known as Burma, offering good 15031 to work on a fishing boat in Thailand. Chan said after sneaking across the border by foot, he was sold onto a boat by the broker and told to hide inside to avoid being seen by Thai authorities.

“‘You have to work at least six months. After that, you can go back home,’” Chan said the captain told him. “I decided, ‘I can work for six months on this boat.’”

But after the ship docked 17 days later on eastern Indonesia’s Ambon island, Chan met other Burmese workers who told a very different story: There was no six-month contract and no escape. Now thousands of miles from home, he realized he no longer owned his life — it had become a debt that must be paid.

Ambon, in the Banda Sea, is peppered with churches and pristine dive sites. At the port, deep-sea fishermen in tattered T-shirts and rubber boots form human chains on boats, tossing bag after bag of frozen snapper and other fish into pickup trucks bound for cold storage. Much of it will later be shipped to Thailand for export.

They speak Burmese, Thai and other languages. Their skin is dark from the sun, and some faces look far older than their ropey bodies.

On the cramped boat, Chan said he slept only about three hours a night alongside 17 other men, mostly Burmese, sometimes working on just one meal of rice and fish a day. There was no fresh water for drinking or bathing, only boiled sea water with a briny taste.

In his first month at sea, he got sick and didn’t eat for three days. He was sleeping when the captain threatened him.

“Why are you not working? Why are you taking a rest?” Chan recalled him saying. “Do we have to throw you off into the water?”

Some of Chan’s friends carried him onto the deck, where he was given medicine before getting back to work.

For the next year, he labored, hauling up thousands of kilograms (pounds) of fish as he tried to shake a stubborn cough. He saw land every couple of months, but there was no way to leave the port.

He said he was given occasional packs of cigarettes, noodles and coffee, but he never got paid.

———

Thailand shipped some $7 billion worth of seafood abroad last year, making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Most went to Japan and the U.S., where it ranks as the No. 3 foreign supplier.

The United Nations estimates the industry employs 2 million people, but it still faces a massive worker shortage. Many Thais are unwilling to take the low-paid, dangerous jobs that can require fishermen to be at sea for months or even years at a time.

An estimated 200,000 migrants, mostly from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia, are laboring on Thai boats, according to the Bangkok-based nonprofit Raks Thai Foundation. Some go voluntarily, but a U.N. survey last year of nearly 600 workers in the fishing industry found that almost none had a signed contract, and about 40 percent had wages cut without explanation. Children were also found on board.

Forced or coerced work is more common in certain sectors, including deep-sea fishing and seafood processing plants where some workers have reported being drugged and kidnapped.

Long-haul fishermen like Chan have it the worst. They are worked around the clock seven days a week with very little food and often no clean water. They risk getting fouled in lines, being swept overboard during storms or losing fingers cleaning fish.

But often the biggest threat is their captain. A 2009 U.N. report found that about six out of 10 migrant workers on Thai fishing boats reported seeing a co-worker killed. Chan faced abuse himself and saw one sick Burmese fisherman die. The captain simply dumped the body overboard.

Thailand’s progress report highlighted increased boat and workplace inspections, but the U.S. has said those do not combat trafficking in an industry where “overall impunity for exploitative labor practices” is seen. The U.S. recommends increased prosecutions of employers involved in human trafficking.

The problem is also rampant in the country’s notorious sex industry. More than three-quarters of trafficking investigations launched last year in Thailand involved sexual exploitation. Thai girls and women were abused along with those from neighboring countries.

Another challenge surrounds the recent influx of Rohingya Muslims. An estimated 75,000 have fled Myanmar since communal violence exploded there two years ago, according to Chris Lewa of the nonprofit Arakan Project. The Buddhist-dominated country considers Rohingya to be noncitizens from Bangladesh, though many were born in Myanmar.

Many Rohingya brought to Thailand are held at rubber plantations or forest camps by armed guards until they can find a way to pay the typical asking price of $2,000 for their release, according to victims and rights groups. Those who get the 15031 often cross the border into Malaysia, where tens of thousands of Rohingya have found refuge. Those who don’t are sometimes sold for sex, forced labor, or they are simply left to die.

The Thai government, however, does not address these asylum seekers as trafficking victims in its report. It said fleeing Rohingya enter Thailand willingly, even though “most of them fall prey to smugglers and illegal middlemen.” However, Vijavat, the Thai ambassador, said some cases are now being treated as trafficking.

Rights groups allege corrupt Thai officials are sometimes involved, including deporting Rohingya straight back into traffickers’ hands.

“I believe we have more good officers than bad ones,” said police Col. Paisith Sungkahapong, director of the government’s Anti-Human Trafficking Center. He said migrants in the country illegally “are pushed back through proper channels. Immigration will contact their counterpart in Myanmar or whichever country, and make sure they return there safely.”

In a letter last month to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a group of 18 human rights groups and labor organizations highlighted the Rohingya issue, while urging the U.S. government to put more pressure on Bangkok to crack down on the seafood industry and keep fish caught by slaves from ending up on American dinner tables.

“The (Thai) government continues to be at best complacent, at worst complicit, in the trafficking of migrant workers from neighboring countries to provide inexpensive labor for export industries,” they wrote.

———

After a year on the boat, Chan finally started getting paid: about $87 every two months. He continued working for a total of three and a half years, until he started coughing blood and became too weak to continue.

When he asked the captain if he could go home, he was told to get back to work.

“I thought it was better to die by jumping into the water than to die by being tortured by these people,” he said. “When I was about to jump, my friend grabbed me from the back and saved me.”

His crew members instead convinced him to slip away the next time they made land, and he eventually escaped into Ambon where a local woman helped him get treatment for tuberculosis. After recovering, he decided to stay with her, and she treated him like a son. He worked odd jobs for the next four years, but never stopped dreaming of home.

Finally, at age 24, he found someone at Indonesia’s immigration office willing to help. And in March, the International Organization for Migration arranged for him and 21 other trafficked Burmese fishermen to fly home.

Hours before boarding the plane, Chan wondered what would be left of his old life when he landed. More than seven years had passed without a letter or a phone call. He had no idea if he would be able to find his family, or even if they were still alive.

“After I knew the broker sold me into slavery … I felt so sad,” he said. “When I left Myanmar, I had a great life.”

By Margie Mason, Associated Press

Published on 14 June 2014

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