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LABOUR-THAILAND/BURMA: Education May Limit Abuse of Migrant Children

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 8 2007 (IPS) - Troubled by the exploitation of migrant child on the Thai-Burma border, a labour rights group is seeking an unusual pact with the Thai government. The Migrant Action Programme (MAP) wants support to help educate the victims.

”The child workers are entitled to social services such as education under the law. They are entitled to days off for education with pay,” says Pranom Somwong, an activist at MAP, which is based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. ‘’It is one way of teaching them their rights and stopping any abuse.”

More importantly, she told IPS, this initiative to aid children working in factories in the border town of Mae Sot ties in with the objective of the government, since it is legally bound to help vulnerable employees. ‘’We want to help the government to implement its own law.”

The initial groundwork being laid for this education drive in Mae Sot comes in the wake of a disturbing report about the scale of abuse children from Burma are subjected to in garment factories, where owners frequently stamp on international and local labour standards.

‘’Every factory is violating one law or another,” Philip Robertson, editor of the 100-page report published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), told IPS. ‘’The factories are making maximum use of a disempowered work force, child workers who are easily controllable and exploitable.”

The research findings concluded that factory owners are ‘’trying to hire more young women” from Burma, he added. ‘’Their ideal worker is a 15 to 17- year- old girl who is not going to cause trouble like forming a union and simply be a follower.”


Factory owners in Mae Sot get away with several violations, including ‘’excessive working hours, lack of time off and unhealthy proximity to dangerous machines and chemicals,” states the report, ‘The Mekong Challenge: Working Day and Night – The Plight of Migrant Child Workers in Mae Sot, Thailand.’

In fact, the report argues that these children who have come for jobs to escape grinding poverty and conflict at home in Burma are being subjected to the ‘’worst forms of child labour,” which is prohibited by an international treaty – ILO Convention 182 – which Thailand ratified in 2001. ‘’Mae Sot has perfected a system where children are literally working day and night, week after week, for wages that are far below the legal minimum wage, to the point of absolute exhaustion.”

Over 80 percent of the 313 Burmese children surveyed in this study – ranging from 12 to 17 years – are forced to toil for 11 or 12 hours daily, and nearly half of them get no days off at any time of the month, the report revealed. ‘’A total of 30 percent of the child workers reported that they were required to live at the factory as a condition of employment, further underlining the absolute control exerted over their lives by factory owners.”

Aye, a 14-year-old from Burma’s Mon ethnic community is a typical migrant child worker in Mae Sot. She has to work 12 hours daily through the week, according to the report. ‘’Long hours at work have taken a toll on her health. She has persistent headaches and suffers from back strain.”

At a factory employing 300 migrant workers, both adults and children, the owner maintains a tight control on the production floor by mounting a personal vigil, often ‘’armed with a pistol,” adds the report. ‘’The amount of wages paid is given according to the owner’s discretion, and what he thinks the worker in question should receive that month.”

The plight of the child worker has been worsened by the absence of a mechanism for the victims to seek help for oppressive work conditions or the regular cut in the legal minimum wage they are entitled to.

That stems from the ‘’labour inspection services of the (Thai) government being under-staffed and under-resourced,” Tim De Meyer, specialist on international labour standards and laws at the ILO’s East Asia office, told IPS. ‘’Regular labour inspection is exactly the sort of thing you need here for things to work. Having a political commitment is not enough.”

The problem that Thailand faces in Mae Sot has been compounded by political and economic instability in Burma, he added. ‘’The labour supply is abundant due to the large number of people moving across the border for jobs. People are desperate to get a job.”

Tak province, where Mae Sot is located, currently ranks second after Bangkok for the number of Burmese migrant workers registered for employment in jobs that are described as ‘’dirty and dangerous.” In 2004, there were some 1.2 million migrant workers registered with Thailand’s ministry of labour, over 70 percent of who came from Burma. Tak had over 120,000 registered migrant workers.

The flow of migrant workers to Mae Sot gained pace in the mid 1990s when it was converted into a production centre for garment factories, now estimated to be over 200. Many workers were fleeing a country that has been under the grip of a harsh military rule since a 1962 coup. Critics have accused the Burmese junta of destroying the country’s economy, transforming it from a country of surplus in the 1950s to one reduced to a Least Developed Country, with over a fifth of the population living in poverty and over a third of the children, under five years, malnourished.

‘’The factory owners have total power in Mae Sot, because they can kick out a worker anytime they want,” says Tin Tin Aung, a ranking member of the Federation or Trade Unions – Burma, a labour rights lobby with headquarters in Washington D.C. ‘’They can always find new workers from the many migrants coming from Burma.”

Children are kept on the staff because they are easy to exploit, he told IPS. ‘’Factory managers do this by changing the age of the children to meet the labour standards in Thailand. Then they threaten the children with punishment if they complain or speak to NGOs.”

 
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