Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Desperate Burmese Labor in Thailand

I was first exposed to the issues facing illegal Burmese migrants during the time I spent doing tsunami relief in Thailand 2 years ago. I saw migrants living in dilapidated shantytowns, their houses made out of cheap metal sheeting. When they went to work, there were 20 to 30 packed in the back of a pickup. Cheap manual labor.

I later learned that without resident permits, they were not entitled to workers rights or social services, like sanitation, healthcare or education. But for many, this is a small trade-off compared to the relative security life in Thailand affords compared to living in Burma.

The following article gives you some insight to the challenges that migrants face working in Thailand and in neighboring countries.

The WallStreet online article HERE.

Myawaddy, Myanmar — Shortly after dawn six days a week, scores of young women scramble down a muddy track north of this border town and clamber aboard metal boats for a short trip across the Moei River, the narrow, cocoa-brown boundary between Myanmar and Thailand.

The women, victims of the economic ruin visited on this country by the world’s most enduring military dictatorship, are on their way to work in a factory on the opposite riverbank in Thailand. In the late afternoon, they cross back to Myanmar.

The commute serves a global textile industry driven by powerful forces. One is the misery of the nation formerly known as Burma, home to legions desperate for work. Another is America’s appetite for low-cost lingerie.

The women work at Top Form Brassiere (Mae Sot) Co., a unit of a Hong Kong-listed company, Top Form International Ltd. Most of the six million bras it will sew at its plant along the Moei River this year will end up in U.S. stores under names like Maidenform and Vanity Fair.

In the early morning, Buddhist monks go out on the streets of Mae Sot, Thailand, to collect alms and say prayers.

The labels say “Made in Thailand.” The workers, though, come mostly from Myanmar.

“There is nothing over there for them,” says Michael Lurer, boss of the Top Form factory. The 32-year-old American argues that his jobs, providing take-home pay of about $3 a day, offer an opportunity for the hungry from Myanmar. “They have no food, no income, no nothing,” he says, standing outside his riverside plant, a few miles from the Thai town of Mae Sot.

Debate over globalization, particularly over locating production in impoverished lands, has raged for years. Fans say it brings economic opportunity and development. Critics say it drives down wages world-wide and encourages exploitation.

Isolated Myanmar, where military rulers last month crushed peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks, offers an especially raw example of the border-crossing pressures and dilemmas unleashed by international trade.

Globalization is reaching into the most remote and politically toxic nooks and crannies of the world economy. U.S. and European sanctions stop most Western companies from setting up shop in Myanmar. But the long arm of trade gets around the barriers in places like this border zone, by sucking labor into neighboring countries.

Myanmar also poses an ethical conundrum for Westerners concerned about the role multinationals may play in propping up rogue regimes. Myanmar is such an economic wasteland that many of its roughly 56 million people lust for jobs few others want to do. Cost-conscious factory bosses across the border, while acting simply out of self-interest, end up providing jobs that both the people of Myanmar and its military government need.

The former British colony was once the world’s largest rice exporter, with a promising economy. The military took power in 1962 and launched a self-reliance drive, seizing businesses and booting out Indian businesspeople.

Military rulers in the late 1980s began to court foreign investment and trade, which developed with Asian neighbors, but repressive policies continued to stymie relations with the West. In recent years, although surging energy prices boosted Myanmar’s revenue from natural gas, the regime blew a large chunk of its cash on building a new capital and on fuel subsidies.

Here in Myawaddy, a big frontier town, shops sell local garlic and other produce, but are otherwise stocked almost entirely with goods from Thailand and China. Myawaddy has only a handful of paved roads and few cars. Electricity is erratic. Jobs are scarcer still.

The main employer, a big garment factory, shut down several years ago as orders dried up, in part because of U.S. and European sanctions. The biggest enterprise now is a distillery, Grand Royal Whisky, which churns out rot-gut booze that sells for $1 a bottle. Smuggling across the river is the principal growth industry.

The Moei is lined with small jetties, from which boats — for a small fee — carry people and goods between Thailand and Myanmar.

Myanmar is “rotting like a dead fish,” says Saw Sei, a penniless 39-year-old who last week walked across Friendship Bridge from Myawaddy to the Thai town of Mae Sot. To start what he hopes will be a new life, he borrowed the equivalent of $15 from friends — at 10% monthly interest — and says he’ll take any job in Thailand that pays $1.50 a day or more.

Myawaddy was quiet during the protests in Myanmar’s two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, and the junta’s crackdown on them. Still, security agents monitor local monasteries and tail visitors through the town’s potholed backstreets.

Myanmar’s economic desperation, which deepened in August with boosts in the price of motor fuel and cooking gas, was a catalyst for the protests. It has driven at least 100,000, and possibly two or three times this number, to seek work over the border in and around Mae Sot. In all, more than two million people from Myanmar are thought to work in Thailand, though only a quarter of that number have Thai work papers.

The relatively fortunate get jobs in a few factories like Top Form, which says it registers all of its migrant workers and pays the minimum daily wage set by regional authorities: 147 baht, around $4.30. Mr. Lurer says he employs 1,450 people, mostly women from Myanmar. The factory is clean and well-ventilated. It has a staff nurse and works with a local hospital.

Some workers complain that they have to pay a third of their wages for food and lodging on the premises, whether needed or not. Top Form says it is required to provide lodging for migrant workers, and that the money goes to an outside owner of the dormitory. Beds are in a ramshackle temporary shelter made of metal sheets until builders finish a big new dorm.

Mr. Lurer says employees are supposed to sleep on the premises. Many do. But, he says, he can’t stop some crossing the river to Myanmar. Unlike many factories, which keep staff virtually imprisoned, “We’re not going to lock the gates,” he says.

Most Burmese, as everyone still calls them, who cross the river for jobs toil illegally for a fraction of the minimum wage. They labor in sweatshops, on building sites, in brothels or at other grubby work shunned by most Thais. Hospital figures show that foreigners in Mae Sot who had the health checks required by work permits totaled only 21,337 this year — no more than a fifth of the migrants.

Take S D Fashion Co., sealed off behind a high wall and big metal gate. It employs hundreds of workers from Myanmar but hasn’t had a single one screened for health this year, according to hospital records. Its human-resources manager says the factory has registered some but not all of its workers, blaming bureaucracy.

Labor activists denounce what they say is systematic exploitation in the border zone. They have had some success in curbing the worst abuses. A Thai labor tribunal in May ordered an S D Fashion subcontractor to give the equivalent of $36,000 to 134 underpaid workers. The case had begun when workers, mostly unregistered, tried to negotiate better conditions and were promptly fired.

Ma Naing, 43, crossed the Friendship Bridge from Myanmar 18 years ago and has since labored at half a dozen Thai factories. Not one paid even half the minimum wage, she says. She says her last boss had her handcuffed when she refused to sign a form saying she received the legal wage. She later escaped with help from a labor-rights organization tipped off about her ordeal.

Despite rampant abuse, neither workers nor labor-rights activists want foreign buyers to cancel orders from factories on the border. This, they say, would merely leave migrants without work and shift the abuse to other places with low labor costs.

“There is too much cheap labor in the world — this is the big problem,” says Than Doke, an activist in a 1988 student-led uprising in Myanmar that, like the recent protests, was brutally suppressed. Now in exile in Mae Sot, he helps run a group called the Burma Labour Solidarity Organization.

In 2003, it and a Norwegian group compiled detailed evidence that a Mae Sot factory was using underage and underpaid workers to produce goods bearing the brand name Tommy Hilfiger. The U.S. garment company says the production either was unauthorized or involved counterfeits. According to labor activists, the factory fired 800 workers and closed.

“There is a real moral dilemma for everyone involved,” says Kevin Hewison, a scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied Myanmar’s migrant labor. Abuse needs to be tackled, he says, but “if this leads to workers losing jobs and being sent back to Burma, a lot of people will be hurt.”

Sanctions present a similar dilemma. The U.S. barred investment in Myanmar in the late 1990s and cut off trade in 2003. Europe imposed more limited restrictions in 2004. Most major Western companies now avoid direct involvement in Myanmar, except for a “grandfathered” investment by Chevron Corp. in a Myanmar gas field and pipeline and a stake in the same project held by France’s Total SA. The White House wants to tighten the economic squeeze in response to the regime’s current repression.

The aim is to punish Myanmar’s secretive leaders. But the sanctions hit ordinary people hardest — and help drive job seekers across the Moei River.

Just before the military’s assault on protesters Sept. 27, Mr. Lurer of Top Form visited sewing workshops in Yangon. He says he went to figure out why bra workers with years of experience kept turning up at his Thai plant pleading for work. The reason, he says, is that Myanmar’s bra factories have nearly all shut down because Western markets won’t take their goods.

After his return from protest-clogged Yangon, which he left just hours before the army started shooting, Mr. Lurer faced a small protest of his own. About two dozen of his Burmese workers took umbrage when a supervisor criticized their production rate. During a lunch break, they marched off to a Buddhist temple. The supervisor followed and asked them to sign resignation papers. They refused and went back to the factory.

Mr. Lurer called in the workers and showed them a copy of Time magazine with pictures of the turmoil in Myanmar. He says he told them they were free to stay or leave and, whatever their decision, would “not get shot, unlike over there.”

One worker, Moe Moe, who lives with her husband and a child in a hut on the Thai side, says she spoke up with complaints and was told to stop making trouble. All of the workers except her returned to the job. Mr. Lurer says he has checked the workers’ production figure and discovered that the supervisor was wrong to reprimand them.

For Asian bra factories, labor is a far smaller part of expense than materials. But the availability — and therefore the cost — of labor varies sharply from place to place. It’s the labor variable that lures underwear and other manufacturers to the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Amnart Nantaharn, head of the Mae Sot branch of the Federation of Thai Industries, blames the spotty registration of migrant workers on cumbersome Thai bureaucracy. He says labor activists — several of whom were attacked in the past by unknown assailants — stir up trouble needlessly.

Factory bosses shouldn’t worry too much about formalities such as work registration, Mr. Nantaharn says. “I tell them we can protect them” by talking to soldiers, police and others. “You don’t always have to pay money.”

Mr. Lurer at Top Form says his plant allows “no monkey business. None.” His biggest buyer is an intimate-apparel business, recently bought by Berkshire Hathaway’s Fruit of the Loom unit, which includes the brands Vanity Fair, Lily of France, Bestform and Vassarette. No one at Berkshire was available for comment, and several efforts to reach Fruit of the Loom officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Another big customer is New Jersey-based Maidenform Brands Inc. It says it requires all suppliers to comply with all labor laws and hires auditors to review each factory.

Top Form International sells more than 55 million bras a year. It does about 60% of its manufacturing in China. But the company said in a recent annual report that it would continue moving production “from expensive locations to low cost and labour abundant areas.”

The result: staff cuts in China’s increasingly expensive Guangdong province and near Bangkok, coupled with expansion on the Moei River. Mr. Lurer is building a new workshop and wants to add more Myanmar bra stitchers. He has also opened a separate Top Form plant in the center of Mae Sot. There, Myanmar workers make what he says are state-of-the-art seamless panties, also for export.

Like many factory bosses on the border, Mr. Lurer takes a dim view of labor activists, who have twice taken Top Form to labor tribunals over compensation claims by workers who said they’d been fired. Top Form won one case and lost one. Mr. Lurer says his plant gets “stabbed in the back” because it employs only registered workers who have the right to complain.

Min Lwin, secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions Burma, an exiled labor group, says Top Form follows the rules more than most companies. While some workers are “upset with conditions” at Top Form, he says, others “think Michael [Lurer] is their savior.”

Mr. Lurer is a migrant himself, having grown up in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Hong Kong and studied at a university in Dalian, China. He learned multiple languages, including some Burmese. Frequently on the road, he’s had bad luck with transport. He totaled a car on a mountain road and was in a plane crash at Mae Sot airport.

Before opening the riverbank plant in 2004, Mr. Lurer, Top Form’s regional director, had traveled across Thailand looking at sites. He checked out the border with another impecunious neighbor, Laos, but concluded that Laos, with only 6.5 million people, didn’t have a sufficient number of people so hungry for work they would cross the border into Thailand for it. Myanmar had a population more than eight times as large as Laos and was bursting with desperate people hunting for jobs.

It did have a few drawbacks. A big one was the presence of heavily armed men in rugged areas nearby. The stretch of riverbank across from his Thai bra factory is controlled by an outfit called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an armed rabble from Myanmar’s restive Karen ethnic group. Members of the DKBA used to fight the Myanmar junta. Now they collaborate with it.

Mr. Lurer, who has struck up a rapport with the group, says he occasionally hears gunfire in the distance at night but hasn’t had any trouble. DKBA troops monitor river traffic from a rickety hut covered with tropical foliage.

More menacing for Top Form, says Mr. Lurer, are copycats trying to break into bra making. Last year, a knitting factory owned by Hong Kong and Thai interests poached about 10 of his workers and tried to expand into the lingerie business. The effort flopped. The border region, says Mr. Lurer, “is a cutthroat place.”