Asia-Pacific

To Be a Burmese Slave in Thailand

Convict porters in blue uniforms work as forced labor for the Burma Army.

Rolling up his right shirtsleeve to show a scarred forearm, Than Zaw Oo recalls the beatings he endured onboard the Thai fishing boat where he says he was held as indentured labor—in other words, a slave—for almost three years. 

"They beat me many times, sometimes a few times a week," he says. "In the end, I just ran away after the captain accused me of stealing mobile phones."

Like many others who have worked at the low end of Thailand's fishing sector, Than Zaw Oo is an immigrant worker. An ethnic Burman from Myanmar's southern Mon state, he was first lured to sea on a false promise and misguided hope of escaping the economic depression in his home country, also known as Burma.

"The broker told me I could earn 20,000 baht [$666] but only had to work onboard for four months," he says, referring to the Myanmar agents who, often for an extortionate fee, offer to find jobs for their desperate compatriots who cross into Thailand seeking work. Anywhere between 2 million to 3 million Myanmar migrants are currently working in Thailand, along with several hundred thousands of Cambodians and Laos.

The agents, however, are usually human traffickers who often pocket the salaries promised to the workers. Thousands are held against their will, as slaves, on fishing boats or in factories or as commercial sex workers, according to human-rights groups.

In theory, Thailand's labor laws should prevent this from happening. But a cabal of corrupt cops, bent brokers and exploitative employers has for decades made easy pickings of many Myanmar, Cambodian and Lao migrants who in their economic plight often cross into Thailand illegally.

"The ship captain held onto my passport," recounts Than Zaw Oo. "He kept everybody's, so we could not escape even when he came to land." Every six or seven months the vessel docked at one of several small Indonesian islands, the names of which Than Zaw Oo—who at 23 years old cannot read or write—does not recall. "I cannot speak much Thai," he recounts. "I did not know from day to day what was going on."

After one beating too many, he finally went into hiding almost three years after first going to sea. "We were in Indonesia again," he says. "There were other Burmese there. I told them what was happening and they gave me somewhere to hide."

Three months later, without any official documentation, he returned to Thailand assisted by the same compatriots who hid him on the unnamed Indonesian island. For all his time at sea, he says he came back with only 21,000 baht, as well as scars on his head, arms and legs. "The captain and some of the men did this with a broken bottle," he says.

Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, the United Nations rapporteur on human trafficking is currently in Thailand at the invitation of the Thai government to report on the country's efforts in addressing its trafficking problem. According to a leaked 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable from the Bangkok embassy, the Thai government "recognizes the seriousness of the problem." Thailand is currently on the U.S. State Department's human-trafficking watch list.

As of May, there were only five confirmed convictions in Thailand for trafficking-related offences since 2009, when eight convictions were reported, according to the latest U.S. State Department report on global trafficking trends, which was released in June. The conviction numbers are small given the apparent scale of the problem. Siwanoot Soitong of Thailand's Anti-Labor Trafficking Project says, "An estimated 1,000 plus, mostly Burmese, are trafficked into the Thai fishing industry annually."

No rights, no hope

Thailand is now in the process of implementing a registration scheme for migrant workers, which in theory should reduce the scope for brokers and police to traffic and extort migrants, as those without papers are the most vulnerable to predation. The scheme ran from mid-June to mid-July this year and almost 700,000 Myanmar migrants registered during that month, along with another 200,000 Cambodians and Laos.

While the process has been hailed as a success, it has also apparently resulted in some damaging side effects. According to the Thailand section of the latest U.S. State Department survey of global trafficking trends, "Observers remained concerned that the process to legalize migrant workers with its associated fees, as well as costs imposed by poorly regulated and unlicensed labor brokers, increased the vulnerability of migrant workers to trafficking and debt bondage."

An illustrative case is that of Saw, a 32-year-old ethnic Kachin originally from Myitkina in Myanmar's troubled north, currently the site of fighting between the Myanmar army and insurgent Kachin Independence Army. He spoke under a pseudonym inside a mosquito-blown tin shack on stilts at the edge of a muddy building site in Pathumthani province, about an hour's drive from central Bangkok.

He spoke just three days after fleeing his previous job after a broker demanded an additional 2,000 baht above the official 3,800 baht government fee for processing his registration with Thai authorities. "I just have the copies of the papers," he says, "the agent has the originals." He says he was threatened with physical violence if he did not pay the extra tariff. In his own words, he "panicked and ran away."

Such cases could become more commonplace when a plan by Thailand's new Yingluck Shinawatra-led government to implement a nationwide 300 baht ($10) per day minimum wage comes into force. While details of the plan are yet to be finalized, it is unlikely that migrant workers will be eligible for the higher minimum rate.

Most migrant workers from Thailand's Southeast Asian neighbors already work in low-paid, attritional sectors—such as fishing, construction and garment-making—that many Thais shun due to low pay and substandard working conditions. While the millions of Thais currently working on a paltry 100-200 baht ($3.33-$6.66) per day will welcome the rise, the concern is that employers will try to avoid paying a higher minimum wage by recruiting and hiring more migrants, which in turn could add impetus to Thailand's human-trafficking and slave-labor vortex.

Than Zaw Oo, the migrant worker who escaped slave labor conditions on a Thai fishing boat, is now washing clothes for a living and earning around 100 baht a day. He says he just wants to save up enough money to one day return to Myanmar. For him, there is little hope in either country, as the cycle of poverty and exploitation reaches deeper into his family.

"My mother died while I was away at sea," he says. "After my mum died, [my] stepfather sold my young sister to another family, somewhere in [Yangon], for 25,000 kyat [$3,740]. He probably just wanted the money for drink," says Than Zaw Oo, who signed off the interview with a determined "I will go back and find her."

This article was originally published by Asia Times Online: www.atimes.com.

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