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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 October 2007, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
Poverty driving Burmese workers east
By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News, Bangkok

Zaw Aung
Zaw Aung saves money to send back to his family in Burma
Zaw Aung left Burma because he could not afford to feed his family.

The 31-year-old worked as a farm labourer near the new capital, Naypyidaw.

But his wages did not cover basic necessities for his wife and three young children, and he could not find a better job.

So two years ago he paid a broker just over $400 (200) for passage to Thailand.

With 40 others, he sailed across the Chan river estuary in southern Burma to the Thai town of Ranong.

Then he made his way to Mahachai, a port city about an hour south of Bangkok, where he found a job in a seafood processing plant.

The hours are long and he misses his children, but he has no regrets. "If I'd stayed in Burma, I don't think the situation would ever have got better," he said.

Eastern exodus

Zaw Aung is not alone in his decision to seek a better life abroad. In recent years, the flow of people out of Burma has become one of South East Asia's largest migration movements.

Thailand: 141,000 refugees in camps, about 500,000 registered migrants, up to 1,350,000 unregistered
Bangladesh: 27,000 refugees in camps, 200,000 unregistered
Malaysia: 30,000 refugees, several thousand unregistered
India and China: Tens of thousands of unregistered workers in border states of Mizoram and Yunnan respectively

Sources: UNHCR, NGOs

Exact figures are hard to pin down.

Thousands are thought to have gone south to Malaysia. Others have gone north to India and China, while more than 200,000 of the Rohingya minority group live in Bangladesh to the west.

But by far the biggest group - two million people, by most estimates - have headed east, to Thailand.

Some of these are refugees - members of minority groups like the Karen and Karenni who have for years been fleeing fighting and persecution at the hands of an increasingly brutal military.

Others are economic migrants like Zaw Aung, driven by the desire to escape Burma's grinding poverty and hardship.

Many people, of course, fall into both groups. And in recent years, more and more of them have been coming.

"This has been a broad trend over many years," says David Mathieson, a Thailand-based consultant for Human Rights Watch. "There's been a sad, slow decline in living standards in Burma, while the Thai economy has been getting better."

Burmese workers have been filling unpopular, low-paid jobs, he says, often ending up doing "incredibly dangerous or dirty work".

Many end up working in mining, construction and road building, as well as on factory production lines and in the textile industry.

The Thai government offers one-year migrant worker permits - albeit with restrictions and conditions - to those that can afford them. Many people, however, choose to take their chances and work illegally, leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers.

'Not beautiful, but better'

Tens of thousands of Burmese migrants have found work in Mahachai, mainly in the seafood processing industry.

Workers going into the accommodation block in Taladkung market
Many workers live on site at the fish market in Mahachai

Zaw Aung lives at Taladkung, a large fish market where all the workers are Burmese. Around 75% are from minority groups, the rest are majority Burman.

Many live in cramped concrete blocks at the site, sharing small rooms with six or seven other people. Stalls selling traditional medicines, clothes and food fill the little communal space there is.

The men work overnight at a nearby plant, unloading and sorting the catch. They deliver it early in the morning to the women, who shell it for 6 baht (about 20 cents; 10p) a kilo.

One group of women shelling fish were Mon, a minority group from southern Burma. Some had been in Thailand for more than 10 years. A few had work permits, but others did not.

If the police came, they said, they hid. And if they were picked up, they paid a 5,000 baht bribe, because it was cheaper and easier than obtaining the permit.

Living in Taladkung, they said, was alright. In Burma, they worried every day about having enough to eat, but in Thailand, they earned enough to buy food. There was electricity and there was water.

As one woman put it, life was not beautiful, but it was better.

Family ties

Six months ago Zaw Aung paid for his wife to join him in Mahachai. She shells fish and together they earn just over $340 a month.

Entrance to one of the shared rooms in the accommodation block
Small rooms are shared by six or seven people

After rent and food, and once they have finished paying the broker, there will be money to send back to their parents in Burma, who are looking after the children.

Zaw Aung's employer treats him decently, but he knows of others who are not so fortunate. "Sometimes people shell 10kg of fish but then the boss says it only weighs 8kg - things like that happen," he says.

He has been stopped by police several times but his employer makes sure he has the one-year permit, so he has not had to pay a bribe.

He keeps in touch with events in Burma, and was horrified by the recent violence there.

But although he fears further unrest, his long-term plan is to save up and go home because, he says, being away from his children is too hard.

Experts say that it is too early to tell whether recent events in Burma will accelerate the flow of people out of the country.

But it is certain that as long as Burmese people struggle to feed themselves and their families, many will continue to leave in search of hope elsewhere.


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