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 closed or employers asked them to go home as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.
The migrant workers returning from Thailand, along with thousands of others coming back from jobs in China, are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine once they cross the border to ensure that they do not have the contagious virus, known officially as COVID-19.
Myanmar nationals comprise the largest migrant worker population in Thailand at about 2.3 million, according to a 2019 report by the International Organization for Migration. Labor activists say that most of the migrant workers are from Mon and Kayin states and Bago and Yangon regions.
Sandha Maung, who hails from Theinzayat village 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 jobs three times. First, I worked as a seamster. Then, I quit because I did not do well at that job. After quitting a job, I needed to secure a new one within 15 days. Otherwise, my work permit would have expired. So, I had to take odd jobs like transporting bottles of purified water and working as a vendor. I had been sending money to my family from the wages I earned at work. It has been three months now, and I haven’t been able to send any money back. I was working on renewing my passport, and [now] Thailand is going through a recession. Usually, I sent 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 memorandum of understanding [MOU between Myanmar and Thailand]. 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 unpaid jobs, 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 [renew them], and are no longer extending them after four years. When a migrant worker gets a job in Thailand thorough an agent under the 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 an illegal worker. Then, the migrant worker cannot get a legal job at factories. He will 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 job opportunities at home. We prefer to work in our home country.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.