Mon 30 Aug 2004
Filed under: News,On The Border
August 27: A Thai labour court is offering hope to over a million migrant workers that justice is possible in this South-east Asian country – even if the struggle to secure a victory could last nearly two years.
In a judgement delivered this week in a landmark legal battle, a court in Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Burmese border, ordered the Thai owner of a garment factory to pay 1.17 million baht (29,250 U.S. dollars) in compensation to 18 Burmese migrant workers.
They were among 60 Burmese employees who had been fired from the Nut Knitting factory in October 2002. The dismissed workers had also been severely beaten by gangs linked to the company for protesting against the unfair treatment meted out to them and 19 other colleagues.
“Thursday’s verdict is unprecedented,” Pranom Somwong of the Migrant Action Programme (MAP), a labour rights group based in the northern city of Chiang Mai, said in an interview.
Many migrant workers had little faith that a victory could come out of the Thai legal system when these 18 men and women mounted this first-ever case brought by Burmese workers in Thai courts, she added.
But now, Burmese labour rights activists are already expressing confidence that this victory for migrant workers’ rights will help usher a new era for the thousands of Burmese who toil in sweatshop-like conditions to earn a meagre wage.
“This case will encourage others whose rights have been violated to fight for their rights in the Thai labour courts,” Moe Swe, who heads Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, a Mae Sot-based group of Burmese migrants, said in an interview.
It was not an easy battle, he admitted, since they were scared of being arrested, knew little about their rights and court proceedings, and had to survive on the limited money they had since the other factories in Mae Sot had refused to employ them because they were – troublemakers?.
The relief was evident in the voice of Ma Wai, a 26-year-old from Burma’s Shan State, who was among the 18 workers savouring the taste of victory.
“The court’s decision has helped me to realise that victory is possible even for people like us. But we had to take risks and fight for it,” she said over the telephone from Mae Sot.
Ma Wai hopes to celebrate like most of her fellow labour rights pioneers – using part of the compensation money to visit her family in Burma. “It will be a reunion after two years,” she said.
This week’s decision comes 18 months after the Labour Protection Office of Tak province, where Mae Sot is located, weighed in favour of the dismissed migrant workers when it ordered the Nut Knitting factory to compensate the employees for lost earnings.
But the employers refused, prompting lawyers from the Law Society of Thailand to sue the factory owner on behalf of the migrant workers.
A similar dispute is playing out in another garment factory in Mae Sot, the Thai-owned Nasawat Apparel Co that has refused to comply with an order by labour protection officials to compensate dismissed employees.
In this case, the employer has to pay 16 million baht (421,000 U.S. dollars) to 257 migrant workers who walked out in protest for being underpaid and overworked.
Thai labour law specifies a minimum wage of 133 baht (3.50 dollars) per day for an eight-hour shift in Mae Sot. The overtime rate is 25 baht per hour (about 70 cents).
But at Nasawat Apparel, the Burmese workers were being paid 50 baht per day (1.30 dollars) for an eight-hour shift, and overtime earned them only eight baht per hour (about 20 cents).
The travails of Burmese labourers in Mae Sot have come to symbolise the painful climate in which migrant workers toil in jobs that are dirty, dangerous and back-breaking across Thailand.
Besides working in garment factories, migrant workers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia are employed in the manufacturing sector, the construction sector, in the fishing and agriculture industry and as domestic servants in Thailand.
In July, in an effort to regulate the number of foreign workers pouring in from neighbouring countries and also offer them more security and new benefits, the Thai government conducted a successful migrant-labour
An estimated 1.2 million migrants registered, of which over 800,000 came from Burma, nearly 173,000 from Laos and over 155,000 from Cambodia, according to figures from the labour ministry.
Mae Sot alone has close to 100,000 Burmese migrants employed in the many garment factories and farms in the vicinity. This labour flow began in the mid-1990s, when the Thai government converted this remote border town into
a production centre.
During 12-month period between 2002-2003, the Federation of the Tak Industrialists Chapter, a body that includes the factory owners in Mae Sot, stated in a report that the region had raked in five billion baht (125 million dollars).
But life for the migrant workers has been far from rosy, given the abuse they are subject to besides working in unfavourable working conditions. Some Burmese men have been beaten, some women have been raped and murdered
and labour rights activists like Moe Swe have been threatened.
“For too long, the migrant workers in places like Mae Sot have been exploited and paid less,” William Conklin, the Thai representative of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, a Washington D.C.-based non-governmental organisation, told IPS.
But this week’s verdict to help migrant workers will amount to little unless there is “systematic change,” he said. “Most employers will think they can still get away by exploiting their workers.”