Pawns in a hellish blame game

Life is not easy for migrant workers from Myanmar who face prejudice, accusations and inequality every day − but there is hope

Two decades ago, Sar left her bleak rural village in Myanmar's Mon State for Thailand. In those days, she was taught by her mother to do chores only. She cooked and cleaned day in and day out. Her mother did not allow her to go outside alone. She discouraged her daughter from going to the cinema with friends out of fear she would "stray from the course".

At the age of 19, Sar decided to approach a labour agent. Clutching her bag, she travelled by bus, boat and pickup to find what her future held. It was initially difficult for her to adapt to the outside world. When she arrived in Samut Sakhon, a port town an hour outside Bangkok, she worked at a shrimp peeling shed. It was a tough time. She remembered getting up as early as 2am to get down to work.

Many months later, police raided the factory and rounded up all migrant workers, but her employer did not bother to help them by showing their confiscated pink cards (temporary work permits). She spent two days behind bars. It was not until a local aid charity lent a hand that she was released. Then she became an interpreter for a hospital. Now, she is an officer for a human rights organisation.

Sar is one of many vulnerable cases of migrant workers who have long faced prejudice and unfair treatment. Thailand has about 2.5 million registered migrant labourers -- mainly from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam -- but many others work informally across the country.

Unfortunately, the latest round of coronavirus outbreak is sparking anti-migrant sentiment. A 67-year-old female prawn seller in the seafood market in Samut Sakhon was found to be infected on Dec 17, but she had worked at her stall every day and had not travelled abroad. The market employs mostly migrant workers from Myanmar.

Dr Kiatiphum Wongrajit, the permanent secretary for public health, said officials are confident the outbreak originated in the community of Myanmar workers at the market. As such, they have decided to confine their movement and expand testing to cover as many of them as possible. In the meantime, authorities are stepping up efforts to crack down on migrant smuggling networks.

While some have pointed fingers at illegal migrants, others have argued that it remains unclear. In light of this blame game, Life talked to Myanmar workers and human rights advocates about the impact of anti-migrant hostility.

Feared for spreading germs

Sar, 41, said she was travelling to work when the new outbreak suddenly sent Samut Sakhon into lockdown. Now, she is biding her time in quarantine in a hotel in Bangkok. She has tested negative for the coronavirus and hopes to return home soon.

"When a hotel staff member saw my passport and knew I was from Myanmar, she was taken aback," Sar said. "When I walked past reception the next day, I overheard her say loudly that those who come from Samut Sakhon must have been infected. I thought to myself, 'Am I a monster or a germ?'.

"When I go to a restaurant, an auntie owner keeps asking where I come from because I am a new face. I dodge her question because it will make everybody uncomfortable."

She said it is not only real people but also social media users who make incendiary comments using racist language when there is no evidence that Myanmar workers were the first to spread the virus. "Public health officials are mainly screening migrant workers, not Thais. They should expand mass testing [in all groups]," she said.

On Feb 1, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) said Thailand logged 836 new coronavirus cases, 793 of them from active testing, taking the tally of confirmed infections to 19,618. Of those detected through active case finding, almost all -- 782 -- were in Samut Sakhon. The search continues in markets, factories and dormitories in Samut Sakhon, and around 7% of those tested are diagnosed with Covid-19.

Sar said it reminded her of those days when she worked at the hospital. Some local staff did not eat her food or get close to her because meningococcal disease and elephantiasis were commonly found in Myanmar workers.

Being singled out

Champa, 45, echoed the same view. She said she travelled from Myanmar's Kachin State to Bangkok three decades ago. Since then, she has been a housekeeper. However, the outbreak in Samut Sakhon has revived subdued hostility towards migrant workers.

"My landlord always greeted me when I returned to my room on the weekend, but she has kept her distance even though she knows I live in Bangkok at all times," she said.

Champa recounted an experience when she accompanied her sick friend to a hospital. When staff saw their pink cards, they asked them to undergo virus screening in a tent outside the building.

"They asked our travel history and took our temperatures. I understand the reason, but I am not sure that it really works. Why don't you conduct screening at all venues, including public transport, where all nationals could be found? I feel migrants are being singled out," she said.

Champa said staff also shouted out her name and snapped at her when she asked questions. In fact, this unfriendly behaviour was typical before the outbreak. "When they knew I am from Myanmar, they might think they can do whatever they want to me. I feel hurt, but I would like to ask why you are holding a grudge against us? Does it empower you?" she said.

Similarly, Irene, a babysitter, 39, said she has long faced hostility because some local workers think she will steal their jobs, but she felt sad when she was denied access to Koh Samui and Koh Tao because she was from Myanmar. Her acquaintance was barred from a public bus.

Environmental factors

Roisai Wongsuban, a programme adviser for the Freedom Fund, an anti-slavery organisation, said it is impossible to pinpoint the source of the latest outbreak because we have not yet seen any report on who spread the virus in the first place.

She drew attention to the fact that the number of infected migrant workers in Samut Sakhon is high due to occupational risks and poor housing. They work at the seafood market and live in crowded dormitories where social distancing and other preventive measures are impossible. In fact, employers should take social responsibility for their living conditions.

"Covid-19 reflects inequality. We didn't detect any cluster among Thais except the case of the boxing stadium [last year]," she said.

When asked about the government's response, she expressed concern that the registration of illegal migrant workers and the crackdown on labour smuggling networks will give rise to the mistaken belief that they are the source of the outbreak.

The government has recently launched an amnesty programme for illegal migrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19 and shore up the labour shortage due to border closures. Once registered, they will be entitled to stay and work in Thailand for two years. When asked about the root cause of anti-migrant sentiment, Roisai said many Thais do not understand neighbouring countries well enough because our education system offers a nationalist version of history. Social media users often refer to the destruction of Ayutthaya by Burmese forces.

"Nevertheless, public attitude towards migrant workers has improved. I have seen more donations from Thais. They have shown greater sympathy because of frequent interaction with migrants in daily life," she said.

She also attributed public frustration to the unfair allocation of resources under the capitalist system. For example, if vaccines are provided for migrant workers, some will ask why they are given priority over local citizens.

"It is prevalent among ordinary people, not the rich who gain advantage from migrant workers. This is a global phenomenon," she said.

Conducive to slavery

Similarly, Suthasinee Kaewleklai, a co-ordinator for the Migrant Workers Rights Network, said illegal migrant workers are made scapegoats for the latest outbreak when it remains unclear who spread the virus in the first place.

She said the amnesty scheme will exacerbate their plight because some employers will not allow them to hold legal status to ensure they can pay lower wages. When asked whether this is slavery, she said "yes".

"I doubt whether every migrant worker hears of this. Will they be able to afford paperwork? Will their bosses let them go?" she asked.

Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a co-ordinator for the Migrant Working Group, added the registration fee of thousands of baht will deter illegal workers from joining the scheme because "they can barely make ends meet".

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