This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and Democratic Voice of Burma
Ranong, Thailand – When Po Kyaw left for work on board a new ship in the coastal town of Ranong last month, his wife and sister-in-law reminded him to be careful despite his 10 years of experience working on boats in Thailand.
But just one day later, Po Kyaw was killed at sea while performing a check on the propeller.
“I was worried when he left the house,” his sister-in-law told Al Jazeera, asking to use a pseudonym for her brother to protect his identity. “I told him, ‘When you go underwater, take care. You’ve done this before, you’ll do well.’”
Po Kyaw’s family were initially unaware they were entitled to compensation under Thailand’s social security system that would help support his widow and five children. After several attempts at convincing the family to pursue compensation, a local fishing activist finally convinced them to get more information.
Po Kyaw’s case and his family’s unfamiliarity with their rights are not isolated incidents. Myanmar nationals make up 80 percent of all migrants employed in Thailand’s agricultural, fishing and manufacturing sectors, according to a 2020 study by Mahidol University, and the number of people from Myanmar fleeing to the neighbouring country has only accelerated since Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup. Data compiled by the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that the output of such workers accounts for up to 6.6 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP).
Despite the major contribution of migrants from Myanmar to Thailand’s lucrative seafood industry, critics say such workers are often exploited and have little or no representation in the workplace. Under Thailand’s 1975 Labor Relations Act, only citizens are permitted to form or lead a union.
Advocates say that labour violations against new arrivals, many of them lacking official documentation, have rapidly proliferated.
Myat Thida, who recently crossed the border into Thailand illegally, said her former employer, a slipper factory in Mae Sot, western Thailand, treated its Myanmar staff much differently than their Thai counterparts.
Myat Thida said employees reported frequent injuries incurred from operating blisteringly hot machinery, and were dismissed when reporting illness to their superiors.
Myat Thida said she and other undocumented workers earned just 200 Thai Baht a day ($5.86), about half of what her documented peers received.
“The factory thinks if you are an illegal person, you get illegal pay,” she told Al Jazeera, asking to be referred to by a pseudonym.
“The amount of work we have to do is the same, but we don’t get the same pay.”
Myat Thida, who is looking for a new job, is currently receiving assistance from the Arakan Workers Organization (AWO), a Mae Sot-based organisation that provides food, housing and education to workers in need.
Groups like AWO, which has assisted some 2,000 Myanmar migrant labourers with issues including disputed dismissals and poor health and safety protocols, exist in a legal grey area.
Thailand is one of the three ASEAN countries that have not ratified ILO Conventions 87 or 98, which grant migrant workers the right to organise and collectively bargain.
The Thai government justifies its resistance to unionisation by migrants from Myanmar by citing unspecified “threats to national security”. Thailand’s Department of Employment did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
“I think we’re a union. Although there is no right to found a union, we follow the union guidelines,” Naing Aung Aung, who runs AWO, told Al Jazeera.
Naing Aung Aung said his group has been dubbed “the mafia” by factory owners because of its encouragement of protests among workers.
At factories where AWO has provided training and education to workers, employees have addressed grievances to bosses directly and staged peaceful protests, sometimes attracting workers from other workplaces nearby.
Naing Aung Aung said disputes can become heated. Only a few months earlier, a civil society organisation was allegedly threatened during an outreach visit to TG Group, a food exporter. During the alleged incident which was documented by the Seafood Working Group (SWG), a global coalition of rights organisations, a former military officer affiliated with the factory’s owner fired a gun in the air.
Naing Aung Aung’s office was also visited by police and soldiers several times in the last year, he said – first warning them to leave Mae Sot and then asking them to assist with negotiations.
“We’re thinking about collecting member fees from workers, but we’re not doing it yet,” Naing Aung Aung said. “We already met with the other Burmese worker unions and Thai worker unions to ask each other for opinions and learn from each other.”
While legally-registered nonprofits can take on legal fights on behalf of migrant workers, workers in the most isolated sectors say unauthorised grassroots unions remain essential.
Ye Thawe, who was a contact point for Po Kyaw’s family as president of the Fishers’ Rights Network in Ranong, said his own experience of being trafficked and the “slave” conditions still plaguing the fishing industry prove the need for workers to be able to negotiate directly with their bosses.
“If we are a union, we can solve the problem and solve our case,” he told Al Jazeera, describing inadequate food, abuse, and poor safety concerns as common problems.
“NGOs give assistance, and that may be helpful once, but with our union, we can win justice on our own.”
Moe Kyaw, joint secretary of the oldest and largest ad hoc union, the Yaung Chi Oo Workers’ Association (YCOWA) in Moe Sot, said exploitation has become disturbingly frequent since the Myanmar coup, with many undocumented workers receiving less than the minimum wage but reluctant to complain for fear of arrest or deportation.
By creating thousands-strong networks linking workers across Mae Sot, Bangkok and Thailand’s south, the YCOWA has educated numerous workers on labour law. Moe Kyaw’s organisation is currently working on forming quasi-legal joint Thai-Burmese unions — a loophole which may provide workers with the rights afforded to unions if Myanmar workers can take the reigns.
“If it is legalised, it’s good for the workers and for the unions as well,” Moe Kyaw told Al Jazeera, sporting a raised fist T-shirt and long white hair. “But Thai law must be amended in order to legally found a union.”
But rather than loosening restrictions on unionisation, Thailand appears to be doubling down on control of organised labour.
Draft legislation unveiled by the Thai cabinet in early 2021 stipulates that NGOs must avoid social disruption and pose no threat to Thailand’s national and economic security or international relations. The vague wording — especially Section 19, under which state authorities can intervene to halt such activities — has alarmed rights groups across Thailand.
The legislation would also require NGOs to report all sources of funding, a provision requested by several ministries citing their national security, counterterrorism, and anti-money laundering efforts.
Dave Welsh of Solidarity Center, a labour rights group, said he believes the proposed law is aimed specifically at groups that help workers organise.
“When you’re talking about those people who operate special economic zones, those people who operate the fisheries sector, those people who operate the agricultural sector, their dream set-up is the current one where all their workers are denied freedom of association, basically, and they are very powerful players in the national politique,” Welsh told Al Jazeera.
Kyaw Zay Ye, a former factory technician in Mae Sot, saw this play out himself. After 15 years of nominating leaders to negotiate with owners, using a collective workers’ fund to cover medical needs, and bargaining for overtime pay, he and 195 coworkers from Myanmar were left with nothing after Royal Knitting Co shut its doors in April 2020.
Though a Thai court awarded the workers almost $1m in compensation, they did not receive any money as the owner fled to Japan.
“The reality around the law is right, but the law and reality are not really similar. Although we won the case, the court ordered [the owner] to pay the compensation, but we didn’t get it. We feel like Thai law favours the owner,” Kyaw Zay Ye told Al Jazeera.
More than two years since the factory closed, Kyaw Zay Ye is struggling to find steady work and gets by on odd jobs.
“They [factory owners] can keep doing this — and there’s nobody to take action.”