Sandha Maung, 18, is one of the tens of thousands of Myanmar migrant workers who have returned from Thailand in recent weeks after their factories were closed or employers asked them to go home as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.
Myanmar nationals comprise the largest migrant worker population in Thailand, with recent estimates putting the figure at 2.3 million, according to a 2019 report by the International Organization for Migration. Most of the laborers are from Mon and Kayin states and Bago and Yangon regions, according to labor activists.
The migrant workers returning from Thailand, along with thousands of others coming back from jobs in China, are subject to mandatory 14-day quarantine once they pass over the border before they can travel on.
Sandha Maung, who hails from Theinzayat in Kyaikhto township of southeastern Myanmar's Mon state, spoke with reporter Khin Khin Ei from RFA's Myanmar Service about his journey back from Thailand and the hardship he faced as a migrant worker. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: What did you decide to return to Myanmar?
Sandha Maung: I returned because of COVID-19 and because of the hardship I faced as a migrant worker. I changed three jobs. First, I worked as a seamster. Then I quit because I did not do well at that job. After quitting a job, I need to secure a new one within 15 days. Otherwise, my work permit will become invalid. So, I had to take odd jobs like transporting bottles of purified water or working as a vendor. I have been sending money to my family from the wages I earned at work. It has been three months now, but I haven't been able to send any money back. I was working on renewing my passport, and Thailand is going through a recession. Usually I send up to 200,000 kyats (U.S. $240) a month to my family.
RFA: Why do Myanmar workers seek jobs in Thailand?
Sandha Maung: Because of the scarcity of job opportunities inside Myanmar, many people want to go to Thailand to take jobs under the MOU. The bosses know about it and prefer new workers over the senior ones because they can pay lower wages to the newcomers.
RFA: What kinds of hardship do migrant workers face there?
Sandha Maung: Thailand is going through a recession, and jobs have become scarce. Many Myanmar migrant workers as well as some Thai workers are facing hardships. There are random job agents in the street who charge up to 3,000 baht (U.S. $92) and promise to find jobs for them. Many people are gullible and are pushed by job scarcity to trust these employment agents. They are lured into jobs that are not good. They tolerate jobs that go unpaid, horrible conditions, and broken promises. Some Myanmar people work with Thai agents to exploit other migrant workers.
RFA: How difficult is it for migrant workers to change jobs in Thailand?
Sandha Maung: Normally, work permits can be extended up to five years under the bilateral agreement, but lately they are giving all sorts of reasons not to, and are no longer extending them after four years. When a migrant worker gets a job in Thailand thorough an agent under the memorandum of understanding (MOU), he needs to stay in that job for at least two years, regardless of what the conditions are. If he cannot, then his employer issues an official letter of transfer that requires the worker to find another job within 15 days. If he can't do this, then the work permit will expire, and he will be illegal worker. Then, the migrant worker cannot get a legal job at factories. He would have to survive doing odd jobs.
RFA: What will you do now that you have returned to Myanmar?
Sandha Maung: So far, I don't know what I'll do next since I've returned home. I have no savings and no plans. There is no support from the government for returning migrant workers, let alone for other people in the country. I don't have any plans for a job here. I don't have enough capital to start a new business. I have no idea about what to do. I have seen many factories in the country that are shut down. I hope the trend will be reversed and that we will have more jobs opportunities at home. We prefer to work in our home country.
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