Out of work and out of options

As migrant communities from Myanmar struggle to make ends meet amid the economic fallout from Covid-19, social welfare agencies are urging the government to step in and help

Migrant workers from Myanmar are seen on the border near Mae Sot as they try to return home.

When the garment factory where Tin Tin* worked for over a decade shut down in Mae Sot due to the financial impact of Covid-19 earlier this year, the 37-year-old Myanmar migrant resorted to picking wild water morning glory along a canal near her shanty home to cook and eat.

Already residing in squalid housing conditions in Tak province's Mae Sot district with her mother from Yangon, Tin Tin is one among thousands of Myanmar migrants who have become redundant due to the pandemic and are struggling to make ends meet. As the number of Covid-19 cases rises in her native country where lockdown has been implemented in certain towns, Tin Tin is having sleepless nights as she attempts to make sense of what to do next.

"My life has already hit rock bottom. I cannot picture what it would be like if things get worse," she said.

Tin Tin's story is a depiction of the wretched conditions of many Myanmar migrant workers living in Mae Sot, both past and present. The situation facing migrants today is especially worrying now that almost every country has been impacted by the novel coronavirus and strict measures are being imposed. Besides social welfare agencies, few others have their back and this sad state of affairs is something that they have become accustomed to.

The rampant exploitation of both documented and undocumented migrant workers by local businesses -- a practice that has been going on for years with little done to address the problem -- means people like Tin Tin's daily wages are a paltry 150 baht, which is obviously not enough to ensure savings for a rainy day. In Thailand, the minimum wage ranges from 313 baht to 336 baht.

However, due to dismal work opportunities back home and almost no opportunities in Tak at the moment, Tin Tin's last-ditch effort to search for a part-time job as a farmhand has not been successful. In fact, even that job has become scarce. The emotional toll this has taken on the family breadwinner means she has to deal with bouts of depression and insomnia. Just the thought of the possibility of a second wave of Covid-19 makes her shudder.

Suchart Trakulhootip, a senior programme co-ordinator with the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP) Foundation, a grassroots non-governmental organisation which seeks to empower migrant communities from Myanmar living and working in Thailand, said being a migrant worker means dealing with problems that have unfortunately been created within the local system to allow employers to exploit the vulnerable due to a lack of transparency and accountability.

Suchart related an incident where a particular business owner moved his factory from Bangkok to Mae Sot just so he could conduct "business" in a manner that requires the least number of restrictions.

"Some businesses feel they are not accountable, so they manipulate the system to their advantage. As a result, the people that suffer are the ones that have no bargaining power. Covid-19 has just exacerbated this festering issue,'' said Suchart.

"There are 40,662 documented workers and an estimated 30,000 are undocumented. The majority of these migrants work in the garment, agriculture and sub-contract farming businesses,'' he added.

According to Suchart, Covid-19 has turned a deteriorating situation from bad to worse with many migrants close to becoming destitute.

From his experience of working with migrant workers, he said the current predicament they face is the worst he has seen in his lifetime.

"I would not be exaggerating when I say that 90% of businesses in Mae Sot have opted to not abide by the rules when it comes to paying Myanmar workers their lawful minimum wages. In short, they have exploited them in every way possible and of course they have left no evidence to implicate themselves.

"The pandemic has obviously worsened their situation with over 50% gravely impacted one way or the other. Despite already suffering by earning less than what they should, today, many of the workers barely earn enough to eat. Many are behind in paying their rent and grocery stores where they paid with credit are no longer eager to help as they have been falling behind on payments for months now.

"Many among them are literally on the streets as they have no money. As people from all walks of life have been financially impacted due to this prolonged pandemic, there is hardly any work available for them to generate an income. This has made most of them dependent on local agencies to support them with the basics such as food and water. Currently, we can support around 2,000 to 3,000 migrant workers. However, the need is much greater and non-government organisations alone cannot carry the weight of this responsibility."

With no plausible way to return to Myanmar presently, Suchart said the Thai government has to step in and help the migrants by initiating relief schemes geared towards supporting them, especially now when the likelihood of a second wave of Covid-19 seems imminent.

"Migrants form the backbone of our economy, so in their time of need, we cannot throw them under the bus. I urge the government to consider their well-being as well. By having no income, they have to live without electricity and use nature to source edible items just to stay alive. We are seeing a hand to mouth situation here. Handouts by NGOs and local residents is what is keeping the migrants going currently but this is not a sustainable plan for the long haul.''

Living under the new normal has also become a task for many migrant workers, said the veteran social worker, because they cannot afford to purchase masks and hand sanitiser. According to a survey, most do make an effort to wash their hands with soap whenever possible.

Their ability to practise social distancing has also become an issue because most of them reside in congested communities, often not with the best sanitation system.

However, their worries go beyond Covid-19, Suchart claims.

"From what I have observed, migrant workers are doing their best to protect themselves from Covid-19, however, with little to no income trickling in, there is really not much they can do independently to do more to protect themselves.

"Many if not all are well aware of how to keep themselves safe from getting the virus, however, they do not have the finances to make sure they are well-protected, which is also a worry for them.

"What takes greater precedence is filling the stomachs of their loved ones."

*not her real name.