10/14/2010, 00.00
THAILAND – MYANMAR
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Victims of exploitation and abuse, Burmese immigrants are essential for Thailand’s economy

by Weena Kowitwanij
For more than a month, 500 Burmese workers have staged a protest despite the violence and intimidation in order to demand back pay and the return of their identity papers, which their employer seized. Regularising their status is one solution to their predicament but it will not settle the matter of their children’s schooling. Too many of them in fact have to go back to Myanmar to get an education. In Samut-Sakom province, the Catholic Church has tried to help immigrants and fill the gap.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The dispute between Burmese workers and a seafood factory in northeastern Thailand could be settled shortly. The employees have complained for more than a month of acts of violence and intimidation against them because of their protest against their employer’s failure to pay wages and his decision to take away their identity papers.

The struggle by 500 Burmese workers highlights the broader problem of workers’ rights in the Southeast Asian kingdom. Back on 5 September, 500 workers from Myanmar (Burma) employed at the Dechapanich Fishing Net Factory in Kohn Kaen province began labour action against their employer, because he had confiscated their ID papers and had not yet paid their wages. In addition, he fired five Burmese employees “without just cause” without returning their papers, thus denying them the possibility of moving freely in the country. The case was serious enough for the central government to get involved. It is expected that the situation will soon have a positive outcome.

In the past few years, foreign immigrants have helped boost Thailand’s economic growth, especially workers from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, who accept low wages. Whether legal or illegal, they have met demands by local employers for cheap labour.

However, their presence has a raised a number of issues, most notably enforcing minimum wage standards, education for immigrant children, and the tendency of employers to take away ID papers to use against workers and as surety for their work.

For Burmese workers, the situation is even more difficult because they fled a military dictatorship that is harsh on any form of dissent.

An official at the Thai Labour Department is aware of the many difficulties Burmese migrant workers face because the economy of their country “is not stable for political reasons.”

Labour expert Titikamol Sukyen notes that the central Thai province of Samut-Sakom, centre of the seafood industry, is a magnet for migrants. “Currently, they are hundreds of thousands, both legal and illegal.”

Sadly, “Thais think we are stealing their job and depriving them of their future,” a Burmese immigrant, Narong Phayongsak, told AsiaNews. “In reality, we work in low-level jobs that Thais do not want to do.” Plus, “a Burmese worker is worth three Thais to a Thai employer.” Yet, this is not enough to guarantee them “the minimum wage that Thais get.”

Pichit Nilthongkaum, an official with Samut-Sakom province, said that the government plans to help migrants so that they can prove their citizenship and “come out of the shadow of anonymity and illegality.”

An estimated 120,000 Burmese immigrants work in Samut-Sakom province. About 600 to 700,000 illegal immigrants are expected to regularise their stay over the next two years. This way, they can get a driving licence and travel.

Having the right papers will not however solve all of their problems. A major one is education for their children whose number is growing at a rate of up to five a day.

For Sompong Sakaew, coordinator for the RakThai Foundation, immigrants face a real dilemma, having to choose between sending their children back home to get an education, or start them off working here without schooling.

Given its traditional concern for societal issues, the Catholic Church is providing immigrants with n alternative to the aforementioned stark choice.

Saint Ann Parish Church is one example. Located near a community of Burmese migrants, it is led by Fr Theraphol Kobvitthayakul, who in addition to being the parish priest is also the director of Saint Ann’s Hospitality Centre.

“The centre provides free education year-round to more than a hundred kids, aged three to twelve. Its focus is learning the Thai and Burmese languages,” the clergyman said. Equally important, “Catholics also focus on educating immigrant children to be ‘good people’.”

The programme was developed thanks to the work of volunteers from the parish, who are willing to dedicate some of their time to help the children of immigrants.

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