Nearly four dozen migrant workers from Myanmar’s Sagaing region returned home Wednesday after fleeing from a sugar plantation across the border in southwest China’s Yunnan province, where they said they were cheated out of wages by their employer and forced to endure miserable living conditions.
The 45 workers said they had been promised decent salaries by two brokers to labor at a sugar plantation in Yunnan’s Baoshan county, as well as “comfortable living conditions” in dormitories that had access to electricity and clean water, when they agreed to travel to the area in several groups beginning in December last year.
But soon after arriving, their employer refused to honor the terms offered by the brokers, took away their documents, and threatened to report them as illegal migrants if they complained, according to one of the workers.
“They said we would be earning [daily wages of] 20,000-25,000 kyats (U.S. $13-16) within two to three months, but didn’t tell us it would be based on the amount of work we did each day,” Khin San Mar told RFA’s Myanmar Service after returning to her home in Kani township’s Taung Pak village, in Sagaing’s Monywa district on Wednesday.
“We only realized we had been cheated after arriving there.”
Khin San Mar said the water that workers were provided with “wasn’t clean,” and that they were forced to labor carrying heavy loads on the sides of steep hills, when they had been promised they would be cutting sugarcane on flat land.
When they decided to complain as a group earlier this month, she said, their employer “demanded 100,000 kyat (U.S. $66) in compensation” and cut off their food supplies.
“We [ate very little] for five days, living on steamed vegetables,” she said.
Another worker, named Soe Kyaing, told RFA that he believed the job offer was legal, but later realized that it was undocumented.
“[The brokers] arranged for seven-day visas and promised to get residence permits once we got there,” he said.
“Once we arrived, they threatened to report us to the police and took away our passports and ID cards.”
When families back in Monywa learned of the situation at the sugarcane plantation in China earlier this month, they contacted the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group and the Sagaing Region Youth Affairs Department.
Representatives from 88 Generation and the Youth Affairs Department coordinated with other local officials to help the families get their loved ones back to Monywa, but Sagaing Region Social Welfare Minister Zaw Win told RFA that procedural issues delayed the process.
“It was difficult for us as a regional government to contact representatives in another country,” he said.
“Also, [the workers] didn’t go there legally, so we had to ask the foreign ministry and anti-human trafficking department [for assistance]. NGOs here … also played a crucial role.”
Zaw Win added that he was “the only one left at the office, as the others were attending the [annual] Naga Festival, so I had to deal with everything on my own.”
Eventually, the 45 workers fled the sugarcane plantation on their own, making their way across the border to Pang Hseng, in Myanmar’s Shan state, where they arrived on Tuesday, before continuing on to Monywa.
Amar Kyi, the mother of a 19-year-old university student who was among the workers, told RFA that she had endured “lots of sleepless nights” since she had learned of her son’s difficulties in China.
“I had to travel a lot after I realized they were in trouble, trying to find ways to seek help,” she said, adding that “I couldn’t even eat when I heard they had nothing to eat.”
Amar Kyi said the experience had changed her son from a bright university student to someone who is “desperate, physically and mentally.”
“He’s a totally different boy now from what he was then,” she said.
Border Security Affairs Minister Col. Than Tun Aung said the brokers who brought the workers across the border are “being charged,” but added that there was little that could be done to hold the plantation owner accountable, “as the workers went through illegal channels.”
“It seems they were lied to—the two job brokers cheated those 45 workers,” he said.
After their safe return to Monywa, Sagaing Region Chief Minister Myint Naing pledged to provide assistance to the workers.
In November last year, Chinese authorities arrested more than 100 Myanmar nationals working illegally in Chinese border towns, many of whom were young people that had crossed the border to escape a dearth of job opportunities and fighting in Myanmar’s war-torn Shan state.
Mai Myo Aung from the Ta’ang Legal Assistance Organization told RFA that laborers pay about 100 yuan (U.S. $14) for weekly Chinese permits to work as masons and on sugarcane plantations, and said the Myanmar nationals were unable to leave their work sites in time to travel to towns to get new documents from the relevant immigration offices.
Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.