Myanmar Seeks Agreements With Southeast Asian Countries to Send Maids Abroad

The move follows the signing of an agreement with ASEAN members in November that protects the rights of migrant workers.

Myanmar women offer maid services at a shopping mall in Singapore in an undated photo.

Myanmar’s Labor Ministry is seeking labor migration agreements with the governments of other Southeast Asian countries and territories to send women there to work legally as maids, a government labor official said Monday.

Government officials are hoping that labor migration will boost Myanmar’s developing economy by providing employment for impoverished citizens and increasing the remittances they send back home.

They are targeting Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, wealthier areas of the region where there is a growing demand for cheap domestic laborers to fill a shortage of unskilled labor.

More than five percent of Myanmar’s estimated population of 53.6 million people works as migrant laborers in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Middle Eastern countries, according to government estimates, with most working in fishing and agriculture, and women working as housekeepers and maids.

“We have been trying to sign memorandums of understanding” with those countries and regions, said Win Shein, director-general of the Factories and General Labor Law Inspection Department under the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population.

“Actually, we have been talking with Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for a long time, but this time it is more comprehensive,” he said.

On Nov. 14, Myanmar and the other nine member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of Rights of Migrant Workers, an agreement giving migrant workers from other nations the same level of protection that they give their own citizens.

The agreement ensures protection regarding labor contracts and standards, access to legal representation, and fair treatment with respect to gender and nationality. It also prevents recruiters from charging excessive job placement fees, protects workers against violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, and respects their right to fair and appropriate pay and benefits and their right to join trade unions.

The consensus is a follow-up document to ASEAN’s Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers adopted in January 2007 in Cebu, the Philippines.

“Myanmar workers need to have rights according to the law,” Win Shein said, referring to the necessity of having protection against abusive labor practices abroad.

Myanmar sent women to Singapore in 2013 and Hong Kong in 2014 to work as maids and housekeepers, but ended the program over labor disputes and rights violation cases, the Myanmar Times reported in September.

As a result, the Myanmar government in September 2014 placed a temporary ban on women going abroad to work as domestic workers.

Migrant workers from Myanmar, however, continued to flock to Southeast Asian countries as tourists after paying bribes to get around the ban and land work, making them vulnerable to traffickers and abuse because they were not protected by labor or migration laws.

Escape from poverty

Labor migration from Myanmar to other countries in Southeast Asia has been increasing since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in April 2016.

The state counselor, who is Myanmar’s de facto leader, has pursued polices to foster economic development, including those that secure livelihoods for Myanmar’s rural poor, and has sought greater integration with the ASEAN economic bloc.

Labor migration and remittances are part of the government’s efforts to facilitate economic development.

Myanmar received about U.S. $118 million in remittances in 2015, according to official estimates, though the former Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security said they could tally as high as U.S. $8 billion, according to a World Bank migration and development brief.

Myanmar is now the largest migration source country in the Greater Mekong subregion, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Geneva-based migration agency of the United Nations.

Workers are attracted by higher wages in other ASEAN countries as well as by an escape from rural poverty, Myanmar’s internal armed conflicts, and natural disasters.

About 70 percent of Myanmar migrants living abroad are based in Thailand, followed by Malaysia (15 percent), China (4.6 percent), Singapore (3.9 percent), the IOM said, with most coming from Mon and Kayin states in southern Myanmar, and from Shan state in the eastern part of the country.

The states have experienced clashes between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar army in recent years, which have driven thousands from their homes to seek safety in other areas.

Singapore has become an increasingly popular destination for domestic workers from Myanmar, who are less expensive to hire than are workers from traditional source countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, according to a January report by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Domestic workers from Myanmar earn about U.S. $330 a month, compared to more expensive Indonesians and Filipinos who usually earn U.S. $385 and U.S. $460, respectively, the report said.

Reported by Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.