This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Ten Burmese women rescued in October from a textile factory in Bangkok, Thailand, say they were held against their will for months and forced to pay “fees” that would have kept them perpetually indebted to their employers.
The women, who included both legal and undocumented workers, are just a few of what labor watchdogs say are “millions” of Myanmar nationals who migrated to Thailand seeking jobs in the aftermath of the military’s Feb. 1, 2021, coup d’etat.
Rights groups say they are among the most vulnerable populations living in Thailand because they lack adequate protection from authorities both there and back home.
On Oct. 10, Thai police working with labor activist group Myanmar Humanitarian Action Center, or MHAC, freed the 10 women from Myanmar’s Sagaing and Bago regions from a room where the textile factory’s Thai owner had kept them confined when they weren’t working.
The women contacted MHAC via Facebook Messenger for help, sending photos of their room and living conditions, said Ye Min, head of the center.
“They sent photos of the room where they were confined. We used these photos as evidence,” he/she said. “We contacted an official Thai NGO – the Labor Protection Network – and authorities to rescue them.”
Police rescued the women and charges were filed against the factory owner under Thai law for failing to pay the minimum wage and confining the 10 against their will.
Barred from leaving
One of the victims, named Kyi Kyi Sein, spoke with RFA Burmese about her captivity from a women’s care facility in the Thai capital, where the 10 are staying while their case is investigated by authorities.
She said she migrated to Bangkok’s Pachanosin district on July 17 after hearing she had been hired by the textile factory, whose owner she allowed to deduct 3,500 baht (US$100) from her monthly salary to cover “fees” for transportation and the use of an “employment agency.”
“Only when we arrived here, the owner and management of the factory forced us to sign an employment contract and said they would only allow us to go outside after working for two years,” she said. “We were prohibited to leave after that point. We couldn’t even go out for meals.”
Sein told RFA that she and her fellow migrant workers worked long hours each day, despite never knowing whether their salaries would be paid.
“We were asked to start working at 7:30 a.m. and allowed to take a lunch break at 12:10 p.m.,” she said. “We’d work until 5:00 p.m., but were called back 30 minutes later to start the night shift, which ended around 10:00 p.m. The employer never mentioned the exact amount of salary [he would pay us], but insisted we would be able to earn as much as we wanted.”
Sein said the workers lived in a room on the top floor of the same factory where they worked.
“Each floor had a CCTV camera, so we couldn’t escape,” she said. “We could cook in the room but had to ask others to buy groceries for us.”
The factory owner later tried to get Sein and other migrant workers to hand over their Myanmar national ID cards, but they refused.
“At that point, he threatened to fire us, and demanded that we pay back 15,000 baht (US$425) for transportation fees [from Myanmar to Thailand],” she said. “When we told him we had no money to repay it, he asked us for 500 baht (US$14) [per month] to stay at the factory while we looked for other jobs. We couldn’t afford it.”
Sein said that she and her fellow migrant workers were “afraid of getting arrested” for not paying the owner, so they contacted MHAC for help.
Ye Min of MHAC said that seven of the 10 women have permits to live and work in Thailand, while the other three were undocumented workers.
He said that, since the military coup, an increasing number of Myanmar nationals had turned to overseas jobs – whether legal or not – due to economic hardship and high unemployment rates.
“In other, more tragic cases, some … were sold as slaves on fishing boats, and young women were sold to human trafficking rings at the Malaysian border [with Thailand],” he said. “The military coup has ruined our country, forcing people to migrate to Thailand, where they face tragedy.”
RFA was unable to contact the Labor Attaché Office at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok for more information about the enslaved women by the time of publishing.
According to a recent report by Thailand’s Bangkok Post, around 400,000 documented workers from Myanmar migrated to Thailand in the wake of the military coup.
But labor activists say that there are likely “millions” of documented and undocumented workers from Myanmar who are now living in Thailand.
In December last year, the International Organization for Migration said in a report that nearly 40,000 people from Myanmar had migrated to other countries for various reasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the political and economic impact of the coup.