Crackdown on Myanmar illegal labourers boosts border rackets (Feature)
By Peter Janssen Jul 8, 2010, 4:10 GMT
Mae Sot, Thailand - Truckloads of caged Burmese have become a common sight in Mae Sot, a checkpoint along the Thai-Myanmar border tasked with deporting thousands of undocumented migrant workers from Thailand in the coming months.
Up to 100 undocumented Burmese migrant workers are being detained each night at the Mae Sot immigration jail and then deported, officially or unofficially, across the Moei River to Myanmar, border sources said.
Myanmar immigration authorities only accept 400 of the deportees over the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge per month, taking 100 every Monday.
Hundreds of others are being deported unofficially across the Moei River to a checkpoint controlled by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a militia under the command of Myanmar's military junta, which charges the returnees a 1,200-baht (37.50-dollar) re-entry fee.
'If they can pay the 1,200 baht, they are released right away, but if they cannot pay, they are kept in barracks, and brokers will contact their friends and family to arrange payment,' said Moe Swe, director of the New Dawn Workers Association in Mae Sot, 350 kilometres north of Bangkok.
Some of the migrant workers are kept for days at the militia's compound until they pay up. Others are forced to work to pay off the fee, said Moe Swe, whose association monitors labour abuses in Thailand.
Those who can pay the fee, are charged another 10,000 to 15,000 baht by brokers to arrange a return trip to Thailand to seek illegal employment again, sources said.
'We're very concerned about these extortion rackets being run by the DKBA, and it appears that Thai officials are profiting from this,' said Philip Robertson, a labour expert at New York-based Human Rights Watch. 'They are deliberately sending people to a gate where its known that people are being extorted.'
In its latest effort to crack down on undocumented migrant workers, the Thai government has targeted 300,000 Cambodian, Lao and Myanmar labourers who have not met a deadline to register for legal status for deportation between June to August.
Most of the deportees would be from Myanmar. An estimated 2-3 million Myanmar nationals work in Thailand, providing cheap and pliant labour for factories, farms, fisheries, households, bars and brothels.
Criticized for turning a blind eye to exploitation of this migrant labour force by employers and human traffickers, the Thai government has implemented policies over the past two decades to provide semi-legal status for at least some of these foreign workers.
Besides Burmese, there are also an estimated 800,000 Cambodians and Lao working in Thailand, which is a veritable capitalist success story compared with its formerly communist and socialist neighbours, Cambodia and Myanmar, and still communist Laos.
Representing nearly 5-6 per cent of Thailand's total population of 64 million, this foreign labour force has become a backbone of the economy, without which many labour-intensive industries would collapse.
In Mae Sot, for example, an estimated 200 factories employ 40,000 migrant workers from Myanmar, half of them illegal, who earn about 60 baht a day, less than half the minimum wage set for Thais.
The crackdown on illegal labour intensified after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on June 2 ordered the establishment of a centre to arrest, prosecute and deport aliens 'working underground.'
All migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar had been given until March 31 to register for legal status under the Nationality Verification Process, part of a new policy to cooperate with the neighbouring governments in providing alien labourers with work permits.
According the Thai Labour Ministry, 812,984 Burmese have registered under the programme, but only 80,435 have been approved by the Myanmar government. Thousands more have refused to apply for fear Myanmar authorities will extort money from their relatives at home.
Applications are sent to the neighbouring governments, which verify the applicants' nationalities and provide them with passports.
The governments of Cambodia and Laos have facilitated the process by sending officials to Thailand to provide their citizens with the needed documentation.
But Myanmar has refused to do this, forcing its citizens to come to border points such as Mae Sot to receive their certification.
Myanmar certification agencies, allegedly with close connections to Myanmar and Thai border authorities, have been set up at the border checkpoints to facilitate the process for 5,000 to 10,000 baht per person. The official fees for a Myanmar passport and Thai visa are only 600 baht, leaving a hefty profit margin.
'Normally when the Thai government announces a new policy on Burmese labourers, it benefits local authorities,' Moe Swe said.