Illegal Burmese migrants die in truck
Financial Times - London
By Amy Kazmin in Bangkok
Published: April 10 2008 16:38 | Last updated: April 10 2008 16:38
Fifty-four young Burmese migrant workers have suffocated in the back of a container truck while being smuggled to the Thai resort island of Phuket, where illegal migrants are used as cheap labour in the tourism, seafood-processing and construction industries.
Those who died – 36 women and 17 men, all apparently in their late teens or early 20s, and an eight-year-old girl – were among 121 Burmese citizens crammed into the back of a freezer-truck, normally used for carrying seafood, for a four- to five-hour journey to Phuket from Ranong, a seaport on Thailand’s border with Burma.
Sixty-seven survivors, some of whom are under 18, are now in Thai police custody and will be prosecuted for illegally entering Thailand before being deported, Col Kraithong Chanthongbai, a senior Thai police officer, told the Financial Times.
The tragedy highlights the vulnerability of Burmese citizens pouring across Thailand’s porous border in search of jobs and opportunity, as their own crippled economy struggles with the mismanagement of Burma’s repressive military junta and western economic sanctions.
“It is emblematic of the treatment that migrant workers receive in Thailand,” Allan Dow, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the International Labour Organisation’s regional anti-trafficking project, said of the deaths.
“There is a different attitude towards foreign workers than towards domestic workers. Would a Thai employer put 100 Thai workers in the back of a truck like that?”
Thailand’s robust economy has lured an estimated 1.5m Burmese migrants, most of whom work at below legal minimum wage in a range of industries, including the export-oriented seafood-processing industry, agriculture, construction, tourism and domestic work.
The ILO estimates that foreign labourers, who are mainly from Burma, now generate about 6 per cent of Thailand’s annual gross domestic product. Despite their economic importance, Burmese migrant workers are viewed with suspicion by the Thai army and security establishment, who treat them as a national security threat.
In trying to devise policies on migrant workers, Bangkok has struggled to reconcile its economic needs with these security concerns, leaving workers in a precarious situation, subjected to routine harassment, extortion, arrest and deportation by Thai police.
“Thailand’s migrant labour policy is fundamentally failing,” said Phil Robertson, a Thailand-based labour rights and migrant worker advocate.
“Thai employers want totally flexible and powerless labour, while Burmese are streaming across the border fleeing a failed state.
“But the Thai government has not devised an adequate regulatory scheme to deal with this and protect workers while preventing these tragedies from happening in the future.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008