International Workers Day Raises Concerns about Equality, Rights and Pay For Burmese Workers

May Day 2016, workers around the world took to the streets and city parks to rally and march to show their solidarity and support for their workplace rights. Trade unionists started the May Day celebrations, also known as International Workers Day in Chicago in 1886, when they demanded and won an eight-hour workday, today it is celebrated by workers from Albania to Zaire.

Karen News attended a workers rally in Mae Sot on the Thai Burma border and spoke to workers in Kawkareik, Karen State about what it meant to them.

As many as 200 migrant workers in the Thai border town of Mae Sot took to the streets on the 126th May Day to demand for workers’ equal rights and to be paid the full minimum wage set by the Thai government.

Win Zaw Oo, a mason worker who joined the May Day march organized by the Myanmar Rights Protection Working Group spoke to Karen News.

“Now workers don’t get equal rights, so now I want that we get equal rights. Our workers should also respect and follow Thai laws and regulations. The NGOs that are working for workers should encourage and educate the workers about their rights. Even though the Thai government has officially set the minimum wage in Tak province area at 300 baht [a day], not more than 10% of migrant workers get that amount. Therefore, there needs to be pressure put on the Thai government and businessmen to make it happen.”

U Moe Joe, director of the Joint Action Committee for Burmese Affairs who co-organized the May Day event told Karen News that they held the ceremony to give knowledge about the background story of how May Day started, and for employers and the authorities to take responsibility for workers to be given their rights.

Speaking to Karen News U Moe Joe said.

“The main purpose of this [May Day event] is the spirit of May Day. The spirit of May Day means people worked for eight hours, that leaves eight hours for leisure and eight hours for rest. If workers cannot do something alone, they can do it with through the strength of unity. We want people to cooperate. In all cases, obstacles and difficulties, it is always better to work with a team than to try to do it yourself. That is the spirit of May Day. If something is needed, you have to pay with your sweat and even blood. I want this spirit to spread to all workers. And for the rights the migrant workers are not getting, I want to show and encourage them to ask for those rights within the Thai law.”

Win Zaw Oo said that he expected to learn more about workplace issues by attending the May Day event. Win Zaw Oo also represents a group of Burmese migrant workers in the southern Mae Tao areas and he said that he wanted to share what he learnd from the event with all the workers in his area.

“May Day is an internationally recognized day for workers to get knowledge about their rights. The reason I joined the ceremony is that I am on the workers’ side and I am also a worker. As I am a leader, I want to share the knowledge with the people living in the Mae Tao areas. When we solve the social problems or workers’ problems, I want to share this knowledge with them for their understanding.”

There are as many as 200,000 Burmese migrant workers in the Mae Sot area which is located opposite the Burma border town of Myawaddy.

U Moe Joe, the director of JACBA said that most workers in Mae Sot don’t get paid the minimum wage.

“Even though [Thai] government has considered increasing the minimum wage to 300 baht all over Thailand, Mae Sot and some other districts still pay a minimum wage under 200 baht. So I want to call for the [Thai government] to press for 300 baht in Mae Sot and other districts.”

U Moe Joe had some words of advice for both the Thai and Burma governments on settling work related problems.

“If there are some problems with migrant workers, the two governments should discuss and make a shelter for the workers to stay temporarily. If the problems continue, instead of having the meeting with the Thai and Myanmar governments, I think it would be better to have a joint committee from Thailand and Burma. I just want to let the Thai government know.”

Sandar Win, a worker at Tesco Lotus in Mae Sot also joined the May Day event hoping to learn more about workers’ right.

“May Day is the world’s workers’ day so I came here because I wanted to know more about workers’ right more than what I have already known.”

Sandar Win came to Thailand in 1999. She said that in the past it was hard to survive with the daily payment of less than 150baht when she worked at a garment factory.

“When I worked at a factory, I only got 120 baht a day. Every month I got something over 3000 or 4000. It was not enough for us. But now, 300 baht a day is enough [for living].”

Across the border Kawkareik Town is only 45 minutes’ drive from Mae Sot, but most workers are unaware of May Day and its significance.

Thar Ku, a motorcycle taxi driver living in Kawkareik told Karen News that he learned about the world’s important days when he was in school, but now he has no idea what is May Day or the International Labor Day.

Speaking to Karen News on May 1, Thar Ku said.

“I don’t know what day is today. I have to work everyday. I work today to get food to eat for today. The business is getting harder and harder. When I was child, I learnt about days. Now as we are struggling for our living, we don’t even know about these days anymore.”

As a taxi driver, Thar Ku earns between 20,000 (about USD $20) kyats and 2,000 (about USD $20) kyats. Thar Ku is a member of the local taxi driver association, but said that there is now hardly any benefit in doing so.

“I have a membership with the taxi driver group. We don’t get any social or healthcare support from the group. We have few workers in this town. Most of the people are away working in a foreign country. I don’t know anything about workers’ rights.”

Thar Ku is not alone in being unaware of workers right, Mai Lay, a domestic worker in Kawkreik agreed that she has a lack of knowledge about workers’ right.

“I live in Hpa-an. I first worked at a grocery store. I got 100,000 kyats (about USD $100) a month, but here I worked as a domestic worker and I also get 100,000. The former job was tiring, but here at home, they treat me like their family. The work is not that tiring. It is more convenient to stay here. Even though I am happy working here, I still want to work somewhere that has better opportunities. In Myanmar, we don’t know anything about work opportunities and workers rights. Some of my friends are working in Bangkok. They said they are doing well. I think the opportunities we get here are not the same.”

Mai Lay said that as a domestic worker, its hard to learn about outside world, but she hope to see a better opportunity come to Burma.

Speaking to Karen News on May Day, Mai Lay said.

“People say today is the world’s workers’ day, May Day, but I don’t really know what it is. I only saw it on TV. I am doing domestic work and I don’t go out, I don’t know what is happening out there. I want to work somewhere that gives me a better salary. I want to live like other families do and I want to be happy like anyone else. I hope there will be better opportunity in Myanmar for me and for me to get better pay.”

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