In Thailand, Migrant Workers From Myanmar Find Common Ground

Refugees in the border town of Mae Sod are uniting across ethnic lines to defend their rights against unscrupulous employers and Thai authorities keen to send them back.

Burmese workers in Thailand
Kannikar Petchkaew

MAE SOD — Moe Swe was one of the hundreds of thousands of students who, in 1988, took to the streets of Yangon, Myanmar hoping to end three decades of military rule. But the military met their protest with guns. The movement was quickly crushed. Many were killed. Others survived but had to flee.

Like so many of his country's refugees, Moe Swe ran to Thailand, where he began as an unregistered migrant worker in factories and on construction sites. Conditions were poor. He often worked without pay. And with no proper housing, he lived in a shelter that was often targeted by immigration and army officers. To avoid arrest or deportation, he had to bribe officials.

After 10 years, he was fed up. And so, in 1999, Moe Swe set up the Yaung Chi Oo Workers' Association to fight for the rights of migrant workers like himself. "When there's a conflict between employers and employees, we tell the workers to negotiate and we try to mediate," he explains. "If they cannot get the agreement they want, we take them to the professional legal office."

Of Thailand's country's approximately 3 million migrant workers, an estimated two-thirds are undocumented. The majority come from Myanmar, where a long-running conflict between ethnic minority groups and the military continues to produce refugees.


Burmese workers in Thailand — Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew/KBR

In the border town of Mae Sod, there are nearly 100,000 migrant workers from Myanmar. They are spread across hundreds of factories, working in labor intensive industries like garment manufacturing.

Thailand's minimum wage is $15 a day, but here workers tell me they are paid much less than that. Registered workers earn $5 a day, and unregistered workers are paid just half of that, about $2.50 a day.

Moe Swe says that at first, no one took the Workers' Association seriously. "The local labor protection and welfare office think we're trouble makers. But now they understand. Because we also try to mediate between employers and employees," he explains.

The organization set up safe houses for workers, a day care center for their children, and a mobile clinic. They filed law suits against several employers, and won compensation for about 200 underpaid workers. Now, it is one of the most respected organizations for migrant workers in Thailand.

There's no room for anger or hatred.

But the challenges they face have been evolving too. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth says he is determined to push unregistered workers back to their country of origin. Harsh new penalties announced in June could mean fines of up to $25,000 for employers, and jail time of up to five years for workers.

On the other side of Mae Sod, I meet Aung Aung, leader of the advocate group Arakan Labour Camp. With the new penalties facing unregistered workers, Aung Aung says their situation is more vulnerable than ever. But he proudly tells me that while ethnic divisions have divided Myanmar for decades, here workers are uniting across ethnic lines, to fight for their rights.

"I have never thought of turning anyone away," he says. "I help people whether they're Burmese or from any minority group. They come to us because they believe we can help. And if we can't help, we ask for help from other organizations that can."

Aung Aung fled fighting in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar, in 2008. In Thailand, he worked for six months in a garment factory — without pay —before seeking help. He says he has a lot to be angry about: His home town has been stormed by the army time and time again, turning it into a war zone. For a long time, he blamed the Rohingya, Myanmar's Muslim minority.

But here in Thailand, living as a migrant worker and fighting for the rights of other workers, his perspective has changed. Against this new threat — having to flee perhaps from the place that they fled to — there's no room for anger or hatred, Aung Aung says.

"I used to feel angry about what had happened and I really hated them, he says of the Rohingya. "But I learnt that anger doesn't help solve any problems. I told myself to concentrate on the problems at hand, instead of focusing on how I felt."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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