Bangkok Post » Post Blogs
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Migrant workers' on-going fight for legal rights
The days of fear and submission are over for Eh Mon and some other 900 migrant workers from Burma.
An ethnic Shan woman held on tightly to her passport and work permit as she left a factory in Khon Kaen for another plant in Samut Sakhon province.
"I don't know what the work situation is like over there. But with the legal documents I now have, at least I can go places freely without fear of being arrested and deported," said the 38-year-old mother whose dream is to earn enough money to support her three children in the war-torn Shan state.
Eh Mon is among the migrant workers who staged a week-long work stoppage at Dechapanich Fishing Net Factory in Khon Kaen last month, to demand the minimum wage and the return of their passports and work permits, which had been confiscated by their employers.
All of them are the first batch of legal migrant workers who have passed the complicated nationality verification process to obtain passports and two-year work permits. The fees cost them an arm and a leg in exchange for legal protection. Their expectations were high. But they found themselves stuck in the same work conditions. Pay below minimum wage. Debt bondage. Confiscation of legal documents. And a life plagued by fear of police extortion and deportation.
The last straw came when they discovered that many of their passports were carrying someone else's photos. The anger was fuelled by fear of imprisonment should they be arrested for forging legal documents. "That was why we wanted to keep our documents ourselves," she said.
Theirs was the longest strike ever in the country by migrant workers. The defiance of the usually submissive workforce took the employers and the labour authorities by surprise.
Meanwhile, all eyes in the labour sector anxiously watched how the strike would end. If the Dechapanich workers were defeated, so would the government's efforts to solve the problem of underground migrant labour through nationality verification and the issuance of passports and work permits, fail.
Of the estimated 3-4 million migrant workers here, only some 130,000 of them have completed the complex and costly process. But without legal rights and work security, it will be hard to convince the majority of migrant workers to become legal.
But if the workers won, the employers would certainly not take it lying down.
At first, the Dechapanich employers seemed to have the upper hand. Immigration authorities revoked the workers' visas and were ready to deport them back to Burma - a lesson for those who dared ask for justice.
But with legal intervention from human rights activists and lawyers, Immigration finally agreed to reactivate their visas. The employer grudgingly agreed to return their passports and to start paying the minimum wage.
The victory was short-lived. A series of intimidation tactics and mysterious gunfire awaited the workers when they returned to work. Officials turned a blind eye. The workers decided to resign in droves, confident of their two-year visa and future work opportunities, only to be slapped immediately with the threat of deportation.
The labour officials insisted that the workers' visas ended when their work ended, that they could not simply change employers as they pleased and that migrant workers did not have the same legal rights as other expatriates.
After being reminded by labour rights lawyers that the vague laws left the door open to lawsuits against state negligence, the labour officials later reluctantly softened their stance and gave the workers seven days to find a new job, or face deportation.
With widespread shortage of cheap migrant labour following a nationwide crackdown, other factories welcomed the former Dechapanich workers with open arms.
But if Eh Mon and co-workers face the same labour abuse again, they will have to struggle with vague labour laws and legal interpretations plagued by ethnic prejudice, all over again.
Eh Mon is not worried, not for now. At least her fight shows the employers it is illegal to hold workers hostage through passport confiscation, she said. "Thai workers also suffer labour exploitation, not us alone. We just have to keep fighting for what is right."