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In Search of a Job - Any Job

The Life of Burmese Migrant Workers

Since the mid-1980s, over two million Burmese migrant workers have entered Thailand, searching for a better future. The jobs they have found are often dirty, dangerous and difficult. Often undocumented, migrant workers risk arrest, extortion, deportation and other human rights abuses.

These scenes, of course, are not peculiar to Asia but are repeated in a variety of forms throughout the world—in Europe, Australia, the Americas and elsewhere—with tragic consequences. Something of these difficulties and tragedies faced by these workers are documented in these images by Thailand-based documentary photographer John Hulme.

The exhibit 'In Search of a Job - Any Job: The Life of Burmese Migrant Workers' was held by the Refugee Studies Centre and International Migration Institute in Oxford. It ran from 17 - 25 February 2011.

Life in Thailand

Life in Thailand for Burmese migrants brings new difficulties. More than half of these (mainly young) workers are undocumented, forced to eke out a living on rock-bottom wages and in constant fear of deportation. They are employed in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs in Thailand's fishing and construction industries, rubber plantations, dockyards and shrimp farms, as well as providing cheap labour for the tourist industry.

Border Controls

According to the Chiang Mai based "Shan Herald news agency" at least 200 Shan migrants with border passes cross daily from Tachilek in Shan state into Mae Sai in Thailand's Chiang Rai province, though many more cross illegally.

Migrants without passports, official papers or sponsored jobs have to rely on labour agents or "carrys" as they are known, who promise well-paid employment and the opportunity to send small amounts of money back home to help their families. In Burma "carrys" demand between £250 and £400 to take migrants through military and police checkpoints on both sides of the border.

Working Conditions

Once a major supplier of food to international markets, Burma's principal exports are now minerals and unprocessed raw materials, and cheap labour. Human rights abuse by Burma's military government—the "State Peace and Development Council", or SPDC—as well as decades of internal armed conflict has accelerated this process.

Workers are paid every fifteen days minus deductions, three to four pounds for "Police protection fees" and then the supplies of food they bought on credit from the company stores, very little cash is received on pay day. Thai Immigration regularly conduct sweeps or raids on construction sites rounding up all workers, registered or not, and put them in jail. If they want to get back quickly to their families and work then they are encouraged to pay a "fine".

Even though they are paid less than the minimum wage and have little freedom in Thailand it is still more than they would earn in Burma, and with a good employer life can be better than in Burma, where forced labour extortionate taxes and land confiscation are common.
Securing a work permit is difficult, time consuming and expensive, costing over £100, which is more than a month's wages. And the process is complicated because the rules can change from one year to the next. Those without a work permit are deemed "illegal", forced to take on low-paid, unsafe work and at the mercy of ruthless bosses and corrupt government officials and police. Arrest, extortion, deportation and sexual abuse are common place.

Amongst the festering landscape of rotting food, plastic bags and junk at the Mae Sot garbage dump some thirty families make a living by recycling plastic packaging, shopping bags, and discarded water bottles, sorting and washing what they have collected can earn one to two pounds a day, seldom more than that, but enough to buy food for the family.

When a garbage truck rolls into the waste dump at Mae Sot, a city of 120,000 residents on Thailand's border with Burma, 10 year old Nabyu knows it's time to get moving, the garbage truck barely has enough time to unload its stinking freight before an army of at least 20 children and their parents descend upon the trash in the hope of fishing out anything that could be of use, it goes without saying that whoever arrives first gets the best stuff.

Human Trafficking

The Trafficking of women and children into Thailand from Burma is a major human rights violation. In any given year thousands of Burmese women are bought and sold as commodities, destined to work in the sex trade. The common practice is to lure young Burmese women to Thailand with the promise of employment, to work as waitresses or domestic servants; instead they are forced to work as prostitutes.


All photographs © Johnn Hulme 2010.

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Last updated Jun 09, 2011