Living the dream, Bangkok Post

A non-profit school helps Burmese migrant workers improve their local job prospects

Clad in a black-and-white school uniform, Khine Mi Mi Thein, 22, listens attentively to her Thai teacher in class.

Classes at the DEAR Burma School (top left) offer language and skills training, which has helped participants such as garment seller Hla Min Aung (left) improve their prospects in Bangkok.

The computer science graduate from the University of Computer Studies in Mawlamyine, Burma is among more than 600 students attending Sunday classes for Burmese migrant workers in Bangkok. They study the Thai and English languages and computing skills in hopes of a better future here.

Founded in early 2003, the DEAR Burma School is run by the non-profit Thai Allied Committee with Desegregated Burma Foundation (TACDB).

With more than 700 students each year, the school offers 17 classes for English language, 15 for Thai and five for computers. Students pay only 350 baht a course.

“I hope my life will get better after learning new skills and knowledge from this school,” said Khine Mi Mi, her eyes radiant with hope.

Coming to Thailand to pursue her dream of a better job, she works as a manual labourer in a Samut Sakhon car equipment production factory.

Working from 8 am to 8 pm, she earns only 315 baht a day, although that is five times more than she could earn as a skilled worker in Burma.

The bus trip to the school in central Bangkok’s Ratchathewi district takes her two or three hours.

School director U Myint Wai said the school provides migrant workers not only better skills, but also knowledge about their rights and Thai labour regulations.

“As many Burmese migrant workers do not speak or read Thai, they don’t know local laws, regulations or traditional culture, so problems often occur between Thai authorities and migrant workers. We want to solve this problem by providing them with training,” said U Myint, who is also the deputy director of the TACDB.

He said supplementary courses include environmental awareness, labour and human rights, and legal aid.

Domestic helper Ma Moe Moe, 42, has dreamed of learning Thai since first arriving in this country. Her dream became reality when she first signed on with the school five years ago.

“I’ve been working hard to please my employers, as I don’t want them to stop me from studying,” she said.

“I learn a lot here. Apart from language skills, I’ve studied workers’ rights. For example, I know that Thai regulations guarantee workers a minimum wage.”

The school is also a venue for meeting up with friends. Burmese food and products are sold on campus, and the sound of students chatting in Burmese and other ethnic languages from her country make her feel at home.

“We exchange both good and bad news among ourselves,” said Ma Moe. “My mind has really opened up.”

Hla Min Aung, who has also studied at the school for five years, is one example of a success story.

He now sells garments in Soi Nana. Using his English- and Thai-language skills, he usually earns about 400 baht a day working from 5 pm to midnight.

As well, he does some freelance interpreting for Burmese tourists in Bangkok and occasionally acts as a middleman for Burmese companies, buying local products and shipping them back to his home country.

“The school’s education has been very helpful. My life has improved. Without these languages skills, I could not do the job I’m doing now,” said Hla Min.

Amnesty International (AI) says more than a million Burmese migrant workers are employed in various Thai sectors including fisheries, manufacturing, domestic work, construction, hotels, restaurants and agriculture.

Thai Labour Ministry figures show 149,990 Burmese migrants are registered.

In 2005, AI reported Burmese migrant workers in Thailand faced pay that was well below the minimum wage, unsafe and unclean working and living conditions, vulnerability to harassment, arrest and deportation at the hands of the local police and a lack of access to the levels of education and medical care that were available to Thai workers.

U Myint said the school cannot solve all these problems, but it is a first step.

The DEAR Burma School is looking to expand to other locations, but this can only happen with the cooperation of donors and the Thai Labour and Education ministries, he said.

U Myint said the school is negotiating with both ministries to be recognised as a vocational training institute.

* Published: 2/07/2011 at 12:00 AM
* Newspaper section: Business

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