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LABOUR-THAILAND: Economic Crisis Hits Burmese Migrant Women

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 28 2009 (IPS) - 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 – 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 South-east 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."

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