Myanmar workers in Thailand victims of a broken system

Phyo Hein Kyaw, Marion Thibaut –
With only meagre belongings stuffed into backpacks and duffel bags, tens of thousands of Myanmar migrants have streamed home across the Thai border over the past two weeks.
But it is not a joyous homecoming for the truckloads of men and women, who fled Thailand in fear of a new law that hardens penalties on undocumented migrant workers.
Thailand rolled out a labour decree which hikes up fines on unregistered workers and their employers.
“If we were arrested, we would have to pay money to police. If this happened, all of our money would disappear,” Thu Ya, who worked in a Thai plastics factory.
The exodus of migrants — estimated to be more than 60,000 — is only the latest chaos to highlight the precarious lives of migrant workers who take up difficult and dangerous jobs in Thailand’s factories and fishing boats.
Much of the work force lacks proper documentation and lives in constant fear of exploitation from police, bosses, and traffickers.
Yet, many Myanmar migrants scrambling across the border said these hardships still beat the prospect of dire poverty in their homeland.
“I will consider coming back in a legal way, with the full documents,” said Thu Ya, 32, who has spent much of his life in Thailand.
Myanmar’s new civilian government, which came to power last year, was expected to usher in a windfall of foreign investment into the country.
In a visit to Thailand in June 2016, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to drive the economic growth that would bring her countrymen home.
But a year on, Myanmar is still years away from offering wages that rival those in Thailand.
A steep decline in foreign investment — down 28 per cent in the last quarter of 2016 — sounded alarm bells over an economy whose initial opening in 2011 was met with a rush of investor excitement.
Economists blame the slump on a lack of clarity from the new government on its economic policies, as well as the ponderous progress in passing a new investment law.
“We need to create thousands of jobs but I doubt we will be able to do it quickly,” Myanmar economist Khin Maung Nyo said.
In the meantime, Thailand looks set to continue to be a magnet for its neighbour’s workers.
Huge sections of Thailand’s economy, especially construction and food production, rely on migrants to do jobs that comparatively wealthier Thais have long since eschewed. — AFP