OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News
With few opportunities at home, many young Burmese look overseas for work. But before migrants can earn a dollar abroad they have to face queues, fees, bribes and sometimes danger
RANGOON — EARLY each morning a crowd of young men and women gathers in front of an imposing building on Pansodan Street in central Rangoon.
They look nervous, and they sweat in the heat as they huddle together waiting for the door to open. Security guards scold them for pushing and shout at them to be patient.
This could be a scene outside a charity foundation, with hapless refugees struggling to get their hands on food rations.
In fact, the building is Burma’s passport office. And the teeming crowd is made up of people who have come to Rangoon from across the country to try to get a passport so they can go abroad and work.
“About 1,000 people swarm outside our building every morning from Monday to Friday,” an officer at the Myanmar Passport Issuing Office told The Irrawaddy.
Most of the applicants are between 18 and 38—about two-thirds are male. Currently, the passport office is issuing some 8,000 to 10,000 Burmese passports per month, with an average waiting time of 40 days.
The anxious crowd at the passport office is yet another reminder of the dire socio-economic crisis in Burma.
With unemployment rife, the cost of living rising and few doors of opportunity open, Burmese have been leaving the country in droves over the past few years. A migrant labor organization based in Thailand estimates that as much as 10 percent of Burma’s 55 million population is now working abroad.
Burma was already an economic basket case before August 2007 when a 100 to 500 percent hike in the retail price of fuel pushed inflation even higher. The cost of basic household commodities and staple foods leapt in price and sparked last year’s anti-government uprising with Buddhist monks leading the calls for political and economic change.
But their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Then, on May 2-3, Cyclone Nargis wrought havoc on the rice-producing Irrawaddy delta, killing thousands, uprooting families and causing widespread food shortages. An exodus to work overseas followed.
“Most of the young people in my village have gone to Malaysia,” 32-year-old Hla Soe told The Irrawaddy. He said that he and 10 others from the village of Kone Gyi in Magwe Division had come to Rangoon to apply for passports. They planned to join their fellow villagers working in a factory in Malaysia.
Hla Soe said that their village was rich in groundnuts, sesame, beans and pulses, but without farm hands to work the fields much arable land had gone fallow.
Almost every laborer had left the area—the average daily wage of 1,500 to 2,000 kyat (US $1.20-1.60) being insufficient for survival, even in the fertile plains of central Burma.
“I will sell my house to finance a trip to Malaysia,” Hla Soe said. “I think most of the people who go there earn good money. Some of them can send home as much as 100,000 kyat ($80) a month!”
As the family breadwinner, Hla Soe said he is ready to go abroad as soon as he gets a passport. However, that process is fraught with exorbitant fees and frustrations.
“We’ll each have to pay at least 1.15 million kyat ($920) to an employment agency for arranging jobs and the trip to Malaysia,” said one of Hla Soe’s friends from Kone Gyi.
“My mother sold her farm to pay for my expenses,” he added. “I’ve already spent almost 100,000 kyat ($80) in the past 12 days.”
Kone Gyi is not the only village that has lost much of its workforce. Hundred of thousands of workers, from rural areas as well as urban districts, are now leaving the country—not with dreams of adventure and wealth, but just to earn enough to help their families survive.
The employment agencies in Rangoon welcome them with open arms.
According to several sources, the overseas employment agencies charge applicants 1.2 million kyat ($960) to arrange jobs and flights to Malaysia; 3.2 million kyat ($2,560) to Singapore; 1.2 million kyat ($960) to the United Arab Emirates; and as much as $11,000 to Japan—the fees reflect the amount of money migrants can expect to earn in each country.
In fact, because the export of Burmese labor is so lucrative, more than 100 private employment agencies have sprouted up in Rangoon alone.
However, even the entrepreneurs who run these employment agencies say they, in turn, are subjected to inflated fees and bureaucracy.
An agent in Kyauktada Township in central Rangoon, who spoke to The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity, said: “If you want to set up an employment agency, you must first submit an application to the National Planning and Economic Development Ministry. If you get a license, you must then apply for another permit, this time from the Ministry of Labor.
“If you are granted a license to operate an agency, you have to pay an initial fee of 5 million kyat ($4,000) to the Labor Ministry. In total, you must spend about 20 to 25 million kyat ($16-$20,000) in office costs and bureaucratic expenses, including bribes to officials, to get started.”
All the licenses must be extended annually and hundreds of thousands of kyat in taxes have to paid to secure extensions, the agent said.
According to the manager of an employment agency in Tamwe Township, the only way to run a profitable business is to manipulate the accounts.
“The agency gets taxed for each worker it sends abroad,” he said. “If we subcontract 100 people, we write down seven in our books.”
Never far behind in the ways of manipulation and fraud, the Labor Ministry issued an order on June 6, 2008, stating that each overseas employment agency must account for no fewer than 300 workers per year. If not, its licenses would be revoked.
The Burmese junta benefits not only from charging these agencies fees and taxes, but has also set up its own overseas employment centers to take advantage of the mass migration.
Sources in Burma’s former capital said that two prominent government-run agencies, Shwe Innwa and Myanma Mahn, have been given monopolies to supply labor to markets in certain countries.
“If a worker wants to go to South Korea to work, he or she must register with the Shwe Innwa agency,” the executive director of a private agency said. “Shwe Innwa has an agreement with the South Korean Labor Ministry guaranteeing 2,000 Burmese workers a year.”
Not only are employment agencies taxed by the regime, but the workers themselves may have to pay tax into the Burmese government’s coffers, even though they are working for foreign employers and may be subject to pay tax in the host country too.
“If someone goes to Malaysia, they have to pay 50,000 kyat ($40) tax per month to the Burmese Labor Ministry,” a businessman close to the department said, adding that the tax was substantially higher for workers going to Japan and Singapore.
Burmese workers who cannot afford these costs often cross into neighboring countries illegally. An estimated 300 Burmese migrant workers are smuggled into Thailand every day.
Burma’s economic woes have been a boon to human traffickers, according to sources at the Thai-Burmese border.
Many travel to Thailand independently, simply walking through border crossings at Three Pagodas Pass, Mae Sai or Ranong. The most popular crossing point is the bridge to the Thai black market haven of Mae Sot, which is separated from the neighboring Burmese town of Myawaddy by the Moei River.
Migrants have easy access to Mae Sot because so many Burmese and Thais routinely cross the bridge to buy and sell goods on either side of the border. It costs 1,000 kyat ($0.80) to enter Thailand.
Nevertheless, many Burmese migrants wade through the river or paddle across on inflated inner tubes to avoid paying the fee.
Burma watchers estimate that many more migrants have gone to Thailand this year because of the destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis.
“Normally, very few Burmese come to Thailand during the rainy season,” said Nai Lawi Mon, an ethnic Mon living in Sangkhlaburi. “But this year we are seeing a lot of people coming.”
It is estimated that there are more than one million Burmese migrants now living and working in Thailand, around half of whom are registered with the Thai Ministry of Labor.
The perils of illegal migration were highlighted in April when 54 Burmese migrants suffocated to death while being transported in a container truck from Ranong, near the southern Burmese border town of Kawthaung, to the Thai resort island of Phuket.
Although the tragedy prompted officials to step up efforts to stem the flow of illegal migrants into Thailand, Burmese laborers continue to make the trip, desperate to find jobs to support themselves and their families.
Those who travel through Thailand to find work in Malaysia or Singapore do so at great personal risk. There are numerous checkpoints along the way and migrants who get caught are often subjected to harassment, imprisonment and deportation.
While Thai officials appear to be doing little to prevent illegal immigration, the Burmese authorities have been carrying out a crackdown on their side of the border. A few months ago, a human trafficking ring was busted in Kawthaung.
Nevertheless, despite knowing the risks and hardships, more and more young Burmese are looking overseas for work.
A 23-year-old graduate of Dagon University in Rangoon found that his bachelor’s degree offered him few opportunities in his homeland. Eventually, he swallowed his pride and went to Malaysia to work in a factory.
“If I relied on my bachelor’s degree, I could starve,” he said. “At least I can feed myself here, working as a slave.”
Overseas jobs are not limited to men—recently more women have resorted to seeking work in foreign countries. Most head for Thailand and Malaysia and find themselves working in garment factories, assembling cell phones or sewing. In Malaysia, migrants can expect to earn 18 ringgit ($5.30) for a full day’s work.
Thandar Aung works in Singapore. She is one of an estimated 170,000 foreign maids in the country. A graduate of Rangoon University, Thandar said that maids in Singapore have to work seven days a week.
“My first employers didn’t even allow me to make a phone call,” she said. “They treated me like a slave. I worked 14 hours a day for $139 a month.” (JEG's: generous SP pays maids $0.33/hr - that is being fair and morally honest)
Inevitably, Burmese workers will continue to be exploited in foreign countries. However, as long as people are unable to earn a living in their own country, a percentage—mostly younger workers—will be drawn abroad. The subsequent brain drain and lack of labor at home will only add to Burma’s economic woes.
Additional reporting by Lawi Weng, Min Lwin and Yeni.