Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire
01 / 1998
The Seafarers’ Union of Burma (SUB), an independent democratic trade union, was formed in September 1991 in Bangkok, Thailand, to protect Myanmarese seamen. Under the present military regime of SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), Myanmar is devoid of freedom. The mandate of SUB, therefore, is not only to fight for the workers but also to restore democracy in the country.
For a trade union like SUB, which functions in exile, it is near impossible to organise fishermen from within the country at this moment. SUB could organise only a handful of Myanmarese fishermen who are working in Thailand as illegal migrant workers. The supreme irony of the situation is that an illegal trade union in exile is organising illegal migrant workers from being apprehended by their host country’s legal authorities. Hence, SUB works in a fundamentally problematic situation, which leads to several shortcomings. Given the present
socio-economic and political situation, Myanmarese nationals have crossed into Thailand to look for possible employment. Though the remuneration they get is generally much lower than the minimum amount needed for subsistence, they have little choice.
There are more than 500,000 illegal migrant workers in Thailand, of whom over 70,000 are Myanmarese, making up 14 per cent of the total labour force in the Thai fishing industry alone. The victims are mostly people from Myanmar like the Burman, Mon and Karen. But they can also be viewed as being the lucky ones since, under SLORC policy, they would have been otherwise forced into jobs as porters, without any pay. Nevertheless, it is clear that they are merely jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
Thailand is one among the ten leading seafood-producing countries of the world. Due to a substantial shortfall in Thai fish production, the Government of Thailand allows the industry to employ foreign workers. Though a migrant workers’ law has been promulgated which requires companies to register their foreign employees and take care of their social welfare benefits, nothing has actually been implemented for the Myanmarese fishermen.
For a Myanmarese fisherman to get work on a Thai trawler, he must make a 5,000 baht upfront payment to the broker for a job that pays 3,500 baht a month or US$ 140, equivalent to 23,100 Burmese kyat, at SLORC’s unofficially recognised rate. This represents a salary much higher than a SLORC general’s.
However, there is neither compensation for accident or disability nor any insurance for the fishermen, who have to meet their own medical expenses. Most trawlers have a Thai at the helm and six Myanmarese as crew. No time is allotted for rest and a fisherman is expected to work at least 18 hours a day. They have to rely on their own muscle power to draw the nets.
On shore, crewmembers are allowed out only in restricted areas demarcated by the companies, between certain hours. If these rules are not followed, the worker is likely to be apprehended as an illegal migrant. The company holds the work registration cards and the right to work is decided at the whim of the company owner and not by the fact of whether the fisherman is legally registered or not.
Besides these problems, there is no employment contract for the workers and there are many cases where even those employed for three to four years have received no payment at all or, at times, paid only 500 baht. If they demand their salaries, the fishermen are threatened with arrests by the police, or fired, or even end up being stranded on the high seas.
It is imperative to form an independent fishermen’s’ union for the Myanmarese fishermen who are working in Thailand in order to protect their rights and improve their standards of living and employment. Only under the banner of such a union will the Myanmarese fishermen get collective bargaining power.
The situation of Myanmarese immigrants on board Thai fishing trawlers is indeed pathetic. However, given the sensitive nature of the issues involved and the political and social problems in Myanmar, there is a need to proceed with caution. Myanmarese workers need to organise themselves as best possible in such a situation to demand their rights and better working conditions. For this it is also important to influence popular public opinion
in Thailand to support the cause of immigrant workers in the fishing industry.
Articles and files
KO KO KHAING, Out of the frying pan into the fire in. Samudra Report, 1997/03, 17