There are between 1.5 and 2 million migrant workers in Thailand, roughly 80 percent are Burmese. Mae Sot is a border town in Tak Province in the north of Thailand across the Moei River from Mywaddy, Burma, and is host to some 100,000 Burmese workers employed primarily in textile and garment factories, other manufacturing industries, and agricultural work. For nearly ten years factories operating in Thailand have been opening in and relocating to Mae Sot, following the Thai government policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with Burma which began in the early 1990s. With this policy came an increasingly porous border, in terms of capital, goods and labour. As the cost of labour increased during Thailand’s boom decade of 1986-96 a steadily increasing number of migrant workers have come to Thailand to take low-wage jobs often shunned by locals, primarily in fisheries and seafood processing, plantations and agriculture, domestic work and manufacturing.
Over the years Mae Sot has become synonymous with labour rights abuse and extreme forms of exploitation, as is documented in reports from the City University of Hong Kong Southeast Asia Research Centre, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and the ICFTU among a number of others. Despite migrants’ legal inability to form registered trade unions, many still seek to informally organise unilaterally within workplaces, and/or with the assistance of unions and labour support organisations; in nearly every case these organisations are Burmese. But organising migrant workers is difficult. Migrant workers often have only one day off a month, and are not always permitted to leave the factory compound on Saturday or Sunday night, making it difficult to contact workers. In addition, employers regularly take advantage of the vulnerability of these workers, and dismissal is often arbitrary, meaning that workers are unwilling to take any actions that may be perceived as risky. Following dismissal and in many cases preceding it, immigration officials are routinely called in by employers to deport both regular and irregular migrant workers. Time and again, when Burmese migrant workers have attempted to alter their conditions of work, have demanded their rights through informal collective bargaining agreements, organised walk-outs and wildcat strikes or have simply attempted to engage in dialogue over working conditions, they have been sacked and usually find themselves deported.
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