“The Burma government doesn’t care that people come to Thailand for work. Sometimes I feel like I want to go home but it’s not any better in Burma. It’s difficult in Thailand, but in Burma there is no opportunity either,” says Kaung Tip Kyio, a 23-year-old young woman who migrated from eastern Shan state to Thailand in 2014 to work as a cashier and attend school.
For women living in Myanmar (also known as Burma), earning an income is difficult. Wages are low and much of the work is strenuous and labor intensive. Increased pressure for young women to get married and raise children in the country’s struggling economy makes prospects for work and a new life in neighboring countries more appealing.
In what is referred to as “the feminization of migration,” women now see the chance to go work outside of their country as an opportunity to move more freely and independently. A 2015 migration report by the United Nations cited that in that year, women comprised 48 percent of all international migrants worldwide. This runs contrary to past observations that saw women moving to follow their husbands after they had secured work.
Kaung Tip Kyio remembers when she first arrived in Thailand and recalls facing a lot of problems. “If Thai immigration came to visit, I’d have to leave or hide because I did not have a work permit” she recounts. “I tried to get one but was told if I was student that I could not work.”
Despite the many challenges that exist, notably in accessing legal documentation, migrants — mainly from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar — have been working in various sectors, including agriculture and construction, across northern Thailand, filling labor shortages for decades. While it is possible to earn a living, migrants are known to take up jobs in Thailand commonly referred to as the “3 Ds” – dirty, dangerous, and difficult.
There are seven ranks of minimum wages in Thailand ranging from between 308 baht and 330 baht (approximately $9 to $10). However, it is estimated that thousands are paid far less than the legal wage and often exploited at the hands of their employer by not being fairly compensated for working overtime or working conditions that put their safety at risk. Pressure from nonprofit organizations has mounted to ensure safe and fair working conditions. Notwithstanding, migrants are looked at as a security threat by Thai policymakers and as such, immigration raids on factories are common and immigration law is strictly enforced.
These challenges cannot be overlooked — and yet for women this discrimination comes as an attack on not only their status as migrants, but also their gender. Survivors who experience violence or gender-based discrimination in the workplace or at home are threatened by their perpetrators to stay silent or risk exposing their legal status.
The process is complicated and full of communication gaps. Kaung Tip Kyio explains the preferential treatment to other foreigners over people from Myanmar and expresses a frustration at the many types of visas and restrictions. For women, she notes, the experiences faced as a migrant are challenging and very different from men.
“If there are jobs that require working at night, women are overlooked because they are considered ‘weak’ and unable to protect themselves,” she says. “For hard labor, they do not want women. Women are paid less than men. If men get 10,000 baht, women get 7,000.”
Another concern is the many young women who arrive in Thailand after being trafficked. These women are particularly at risk, with no knowledge of their rights or the situation many have been lured into under false pretenses.
Ying Hom, program coordinator at the Migrants Assistance Program Foundation (MAP) in Chiang Mai, says many of the work sites are unsafe for women, with sexual harassment and assault being common occurrences. She says women are also regularly paid less than their male counterparts.
“If there is an opportunity to apply for the work permit, this will be provided to a man over a woman because of the assumption that women will eventually get pregnant and need maternity leave,” Ying Hom explains.
For women working in the domestic sector, their challenges come with significant risks, as it is not considered formal work in Thailand. Domestic work, which includes working as a housemaid, is not protected under the Labor Protection Act of Thailand. As such, worker rights are not secure. There is no opportunity for a work permit, no contract, and no social security.
According to Ying Hom, women who experience gender-based violence or labor rights violations and want to report their cases are often pressured to resolve it through negotiations instead of through the courts. Labor rights violations cases have to include the labor protection office, which may hinder women wanting to report their cases depending on their legal status. Whereas negotiation is favored over a court procedure — which could take years to resolve at a costly expense — this alternative also risks compromising a women’s dignity at the expense of their silence. The perpetrators are likely to reoffend or not take the crime they have committed seriously.
Human rights lawyer and domestic violence advocate Busayapa Srisompong, who is based in Mae Sot, addresses the cultural tolerance of violence against women that perpetuates a stigma, which often discourages survivors from speaking out.
“In the cases of domestic abuse or rape, the power in communities doesn’t always support migrant women,” Busayapa says. “Some are paid for their silence or threatened to be isolated from their communities.”
However, Busayapa notes there are conscious efforts being made to improve community support systems so survivors feel less victimized.
When it comes to reporting abuses or threats, local authorities have a less than adequate response. There is little to no punishment – if any. Thai law makes a legal distinction on how to handle cases on the premise of individuals being “documented” or “undocumented.”
Sia Kukaewkasem, a clinical social worker in Mae Sot, says migrant women are often exposed to violent circumstances yet face pressure to continue their jobs because of the burden imposed on them to also manage the household. “There are more challenges for women in the community – they take on many hats as they are expected to work and also make a contribution to the household income.”
Rights violations against migrant women are not typically investigated due to a set of challenges that include problems with communications, language, and discrimination. As a result, there are reservations with lodging complaints.
MAP has been organizing events since 2000 and was formed to discuss greater protection and promotion of migrant rights. Ying Hom emphasizes the continued need for women’s exchanges, which are run regularly throughout the year to groups of about 25 women. These groups allow a safe space for women to share their concerns and experiences and come together to feel a sense of solidarity and community.
“Traditional dynamics of power hold women back,” she explains. “A lot needs to change so that they know the blame should never be put on them.”
Human rights organizations are focusing on the concerns of migrants as they continue toward advancing different community initiatives. There is a strong sense of unity on the ground but budget cuts put limitations on new ideas, such as funding for men’s exchanges — which Ying Hom says are often the first thing to go.
Immigration policies that are discriminatory in nature do little to justify the need for greater protection and security in a country. As such, any system that threatens a women’s security and fails to protect her violates basic human rights principles and should not be tolerated. In cases where there have been human rights violations, victims are entitled to fair and accessible rights protection mechanisms that do not prioritize their legal status over their safety.
As civil society groups and advocates continue to put pressure on the Thai government to practice more dignified immigration enforcement, a sense of accountability is also needed to protect and promote the rights of migrants who are contributing to Thailand’s booming economy – too often at the cost of their dignity.
Maggi Quadrini is the communications officer at the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her work has been published in DVB, Asia Times, Asian Correspondent and Frontier Myanmar.