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THAILAND: Suffocation of 54 Burmese Workers – No Surprise

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 11 2008 (IPS) - The death by suffocation of 54 Burmese migrant workers, while being transported in an enclosed container truck in southern Thailand, was a tragedy waiting to happen say labour rights activists.

The victims, whose bodies were found when the cramped truck was opened late Wednesday night, were among a group of 122 Burmese who had slipped into Thailand to secure jobs in the resort areas of Phang-nga and Phuket. The dead included 36 women, 17 men and an eight-year-old girl.

Survivors told the Thai media that the only air that circulated in the sealed truck was through an air-conditioning system. But a short distance into the journey, the flow of air dropped and breathing became difficult, they added. Banging on the sides of the truck had failed to draw the driver’s attention. The latter fled the scene after he eventually stopped the truck and discovered what had happened to the migrants.

‘’This is the largest number of deaths of Burmese migrant workers we have recorded in one incident,’’ said Htoo Chit, director of Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development, a Burmese migrant rights group based in Phang-nga. ‘’What happened is very sad, but these kind of terrible deaths of migrant workers happen often in Thailand.’’

‘’I am not surprised with this tragedy,’’ he added in a telephone interview from the south. ‘’Similar trucks are used to move migrant workers to places in Phuket and Phang-nga where they are needed. Even open trucks that can take about 20 people comfortably are packed with 50 or 60 people.’’

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) concurs. ‘’This tragic accident reveals a problem that goes much deeper. It was a tragedy waiting to happen,’’ Bill Salter, the ILO’s sub-regional director for East Asia, told IPS. ‘’There are networks involved in the movement of migrant works in some instances. Some cases are outright trafficking.’’

The tragedy follows the deaths of 22 Burmese migrant workers who had drowned in December last year in Ranong, a province north of Phang-nga and close to the Thai-Burmese border. And the month before, in November, eight Burmese migrant workers were killed in an accident on the road in Petchaburi province, south-west of Bangkok.

The Burmese migrants who were being trucked on Wednesday to the two resort provinces along the Andaman coast were following a route that tens of thousands of others from the military-ruled country had taken before them. They are drawn to work in jobs described as ‘’dirty and dangerous’’ in the fisheries industry, construction sector and in plantations such as rubber and palm oil.

Burmese migrant labour has been the main work force behind the construction of the many hotels that dot the beaches of Phang-nga and Phuket, mainstays of Thailand’s vibrant tourist industry. In the fisheries sector, the Burmese men are employed on the boats that go out to sea, while the women work in factories to process the catch from the nearby ocean.

‘’There is a lot of exploitation in the fisheries sector. The Burmese have to work for long hours and with low pay,’’ said Sutphiphong Khongkathon, southern field coordinator for the Migrant Action Programme Foundation (MAP Foundation), a non-governmental organisation (NGOs). ‘’Nearly 80 percent of the Burmese migrant workers are not registered workers in the fisheries sector. And Thai labour law does not offer any protection for them.’’

In the recent months, ‘’more and more Burmese are coming for jobs despite the heavy costs,’’ Sutphiphong revealed in an interview. ‘’They have been given the impression that they can work legally here at some point. That is a wrong impression.’’

Fuelling this exodus is military-ruled Burma’s steadily declining economies, prompting Burmese from a broad range of sectors to leave. The violence the Burmese junta has unleashed on the country’s ethnic minorities has also drive people across the border to a more prosperous Thailand.

In 2007, reports by Thai labour officials and NGOs estimated that there were in this country close to two million migrant workers, some 75 percent of whom were Burmese, while the rest came from Cambodia and Laos. But only 500,000 of them registered last year with the labour department during an annual process that seeks to give the migrants documents to work and enjoy health benefits.

The sectors across Thailand that migrant workers are employed – due to a reluctance by Thais to labour in such fields due to low pay – are agriculture, construction, fish processing, domestic workers, the garment sector and in mines. Besides the south, large pockets of migrant workers are found in Mae Sot, along Thailand’s north-western border with Burma.

And according to a study done by the ILO, the migrants contribute substantially to the Thai economy. ‘’If migrants are as productive as Thai workers in each sector, their total contribution to output should be in the order of 11 billion US dollars, or about 6.2 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product,’’ states the findings in a report released last December, ‘The Contribution of Migrant Workers to Thailand: Towards Policy Development’.

‘’If they were less productive (say 75 percent of Thai worker output) their contribution would still be in the order of eight billion U.S. dollars, or five percent of GDP,’’ it added. ‘’Migrants contribute anywhere from seven to 10 percent of value added in industry, and four to five per cent of value added in agriculture.’’

Yet, Burmese migrant workers are hardly treated with respect. Even a range of laws introduced by Bangkok to guarantee the rights and welfare of the migrants has not made a dent. ‘’Part of the problem is the way migrant workers are perceived. Large number of the public perceive the migrants in a negative way,’’ says ILO’s Salter.

Consequently, it leaves the migrants open to abuse be it at work or when being transported, as happened on Wednesday. ‘’A lot of people are to blame for the abuse, the public, employers and even officials, like the police,’’ says Sutphiphong of MAP Foundation. ‘’There were some employers behind the network that transported the Burmese this week in that closed truck. Even the local police are behind them.’’

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