Spotlight interview with Thwel Zin Toe and Khin San Htwe (Burma - Burmese Women’s Union)

« Exploitation, prostitution… they know the risks, but they can’t survive in Burma »

The brutal crackdown by the Burmese military junta has forced millions of Burmese people to leave their country in a bid for survival. Exploited in Thailand’s clothing factories, imprisoned in China’s prostitution rings… a report by the Burmese women’s union (1) condemns the appalling abuse that often awaits Burmese women in their « host » countries. Thwel Zin Toe and Khin San Htwe, two activists from the Burmese Women’s Union, tell their story (2).

How many Burmese migrants have fled to neighbouring countries?

Thwel Zin Toe: There are about 500.000 Burmese migrants legally registered in Thailand, but we don’t know the figures for Malaysia and other countries like China. As for the Burmese migrants who are not legally registered, some NGOs estimate there may be 2 million in Thailand alone.

What are the chances of a migrant getting legally registered in Thailand?

Thwel Zin Toe : First you have to find an employer who will support you, so that you can get a work permit, then you have to provide a photo and 4.500 bahts (142 dollars). The employer pays half this amount and the worker the other half. But the permit is only valid for a year and they are not issued all year round. Sometime migrants arrive in Thailand just after the period during which they can apply for a permit ends and so they find themselves there illegally, even though they may be working in a factory.

What are the advantages of having a work permit?

Thwel Zin Toe: You have the right to move around freely, within a fairly restricted area. You also have the right to medical care in a public hospital for 30 bahts (1 dollar) per visit. And if an employer doesn‘t respect our rights or doesn’t pay fairly, we can institute a grievance procedure. Workers with children can send them to Thai state schools.

Why do so few migrants apply for work permits?

Thwel Zin Toe: The main problem is that you can‘t change employer. Therefore, even if you are exploited you can’t leave to get another job. Getting a new work permit by changing employer is a complicated procedure. There are blacklists and employers regularly refuse to hire a work who has left another factory. Another obstacle that puts migrants off is the cost of the permit, given that they only earn 50 bahts (1.5 dollars) per day. And even if you get a work permit, the employer keeps it and only gives you a photocopy, which has no legal value and therefore does not give you any protection.
Furthermore, migrant workers cannot always benefit from the advantages provided by the permit. Some don’t go to the government hospital because they face discrimination by the Thais who work there. This discrimination is based on language, but it is also because we are Burmese: in regions where there are a lot of Burmese, the Thais sometimes feel that we are taking their jobs, and they look at us with distrust. Another problem is that in the border region of Mae Sot where there are a lot of Burmese migrants, the Burmese clinic they usually go to is outside the zone covered by the work permit.

What about political refugees?

Khin San Htwe: There are « official » refugee camps in Thailand. They are not really legal because the Thai government has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the status of refugees. The Burmese can stay there…but they cannot go out without the permission of the Thai authorities. There are 140,000 people in these camps.

Can migrants be legally registered in China?

Thwel Zin Toe: There is a procedure for getting a work permit, but most of the Burmese migrants we spoke to for our report were prostitutes, living there illegally. They work on the roadside, and often get arrested, but they don’t want to be legally registered because even with a work permit they get exploited by the prostitution rings. They can’t escape.

Are most Burmese migrant women completely unaware of the risk of falling into prostitution, either in China or Thailand?

Khin San Htwe: The women know there are risks. But they can’t survive in Burma. Some really don’t expect to become prostitutes, but they are sold and have to work in places like karaoke bars. By then it is too late to escape. Some badly want to leave, especially as HIV is such a big threat, but they are under pressure from their owners: « if you try to escape, I’ll call the police and you’ll be sent back to Burma» .

Who sells them to the prostitution rings?

Khin San Htwe: In China, it’s mainly the traffickers who go to Burma, meet young girls and paint them an enticing picture of better jobs and a better life in China. When they get to China, they are told to go and work in a particular house as maids. Some still don’t realise at that time that they have been sold by traffickers to their « owners », to Chinese men to whom in effect they have to become wives. If the Chinese men don’t like them, they sell them to a prostitution ring. This kind of trafficking exists in Thailand too, where they are promised a job, as a maid or something else. Again, some are sold into prostitution rings.

Are a lot of migrants politically active?

Khin San Htwe: In most cases, not at all. Some of them know nothing about the government and the military regime. They simply come to another country to earn a bit of money to support their family in Burma, for example to pay the children’s school fees. Most people in Burma don’t have a job. And even if you have got one, the wages aren’t enough to support a family. So a lot of young girls or young wives decide to go and live abroad.

How much are people paid in Burma?

Khin San Htwe: Someone who works in a factory or for example as a small, self-employed hairdresser will earn only about 20,000 or 30,000 kyatts a month (about 16 to 24 US dollars). But basic goods, such as food, cost more every year. Corruption is rife because of the low wages. In schools, for example, teachers cannot survive on their salaries, so they give private lessons that they charge for. Most children don’t go to school for this reason. It is impossible to support a family on one income, so people have to go abroad.

Had any of the women you interviewed for the report been subjected to forced labour by the army?

Thwel Zin Toe : There are a lot of forced labourers in Burma, but often the Burmese don’t realise they have been involved in forced labour. When I lived in Burma, we were sometimes told that we had to build or repair a road. All we knew was that the road was important because it linked our village to others. They told us that we should therefore work on it voluntarily, which would be good for our after life, after our death. So some don’t even realise that what they are doing is forced labour. When such a demand comes, you have to send one person per family. Sometimes, if both parents are busy with their usual work, they send their children to do this kind of work. From the age of 11, I had to help repair roads. Both my parents worked in the public sector, so I was the one who had to go. I had to carry sand and tip it on the road to repair it.

What are conditions like for the Burmese migrants in the factories in Thailand?

Thwel Zin Toe: The factories are like prisons. From the outside, all you can see is a very high wall. You can’t tell that there are a lot of migrant workers inside, but sometimes there are hundreds of them, with no private space. All single women have to live in one room, and all single men in another. Sometimes single men and couples share the same dormitory. We have to work from 8.00 am to 9.00 pm, and sometimes till midnight, or even the whole night. We only have one day off a month. If we want an extra day’s leave, for example for religious duties, we have to work all night until eight in the morning, so that we can take the next day off. There are also problems with food and cleanliness in the factories: the rice provided by the employer isn’t always very clean, and we only have access to water for taking a shower or washing our clothes between 5.00 and 6.00 pm, during our one hour break. We can only go out of the factory on Saturdays and Sundays, between 5.00 and 9.00 pm. The rest of the week, the workers who live inside these factories are like part of a small, closed society. There are a lot of problems. Girls get pregnant, but they can’t get married. There are a lot of abortions. Many workers drink alcohol during these two four-hour periods of freedom, and they take up gambling, and demand money from their wives. If the wives refuse, the husbands get violent.

Don’t any workers live outside the factory?

Thwel Zin Toe: Yes, but most live inside so that they don’t have to pay rent, which can be as much as 700 bahts a month (22 dollars) for a miserable hovel.

What about the workers’ children?

Thwel Zin Toe: It’s a big problem when parents work from 8.00 am to 9.00 pm, because there is no-one to look after them. Some stay in the factory, others hang around outside. Sometimes children as young as five or six are put in charge of babies. There are a few schools for the children of migrant workers, but they are not stable because of the status of Burmese migrant teachers, and because the schools are not registered. The police can turn up at any moment and arrest the teachers or the children.

What are wages like in the factories?

Thwel Zin Toe : When I worked in one of those factories, I only got 50 bahts (1.5 dollars) per day, even though the minimum wage is 150 bahts. For the same work a man was paid 70 or 80 bahts. I was 15 and my sister, who was 13, only got 20 bahts per day in the same company. When we worked a lot of overtime we could earn about 1,000 bahts a month, but some money had to be deducted for food and accommodation. If orders were low, we only earned 300 bahts per month, sometimes less. Nothing was deducted from our wages then, but the deduction was made from the following month’s pay cheque. I left the factory in 2003, then I took part in a training programme within the Union of Burmese Women. I still keep in touch with my former colleagues, though. I telephone them regularly to find out what the situation is. The pay hasn’t changed so far. There are still a lot of children, of young girls, in those factories. Sometimes, when the workers can’t stand the exploitation any more, they run away. The employer keeps their original work permit, on the pretext that they paid for half of it, and replaces the worker with other migrants. The authorities don’t keep a very close check on these documents. If they did, they’d realise that some of the work permits do not correspond to the workers in the factory.

Khin San Htwe : Migrant workers can go to court to fight for their rights, but they lose their job and have to live somewhere else. They risk being attacked by bandits who are in league with the rich and powerful.

Are they mostly clothing factories?

Thwel Zin Toe : Yes, and there are a few tableware factories. I think the clothes are for export, because we don’t see them on the Thai market. In my factory, the label on the clothes changed frequently, according to the orders.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

(1) To read the report, please click here

(2) Burmese Women’s Union. This Thailand-based NGO works towards gender equality, the political participation of Burmese women, and democracy. It runs several training projects and safe houses for Burmese migrant women in distress, such as former prostitutes who have run away from their masters.