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A Thai holiday, and the labour market

Khao San Road is the ideal hippy haven for backpackers, after a full moon party at Koh Phangan or the snorkeling trip in Phuket. All these locations are fun and relaxing, with enough places to buy yourself a Chang Beer t-shirt or a mini tuktuk fashioned out of beer cans.

But places like Khao San Road, the party location for all foreigners (or “farang”) in Bangkok, is distinctly more Myanmar than it is Thai. Sure the taxi drivers showing you pictures of “ping pong” shows are all Thai (as too are the “ping pong” ladies), but a lot of the street vendors, waiters and hotel staff are from across the border.

Koh Phi Phi, in the country’s south, is known as “Little Myanmar”. Here Myanmar guides and hospitality workers outnumber locals, many crossing the border from neighbouring Mon state with temporary work visas. Others cross without paperwork, to pursue jobs in construction, manufacturing as a nannies.

As the economy back home continues to grow, what keeps these workers here in Thailand?

The price of labour

The average wage of a Myanmar worker in Khao San road is about 10,000 Baht, which is some three times the rate for a hospitality worker in Yangon. Even in places like Mahar Chai, where there are thousands of Myanmar migrant workers, the average fish processor can save up to a third of their wage – which is over one month’s salary back home (in Yangon or Mandalay).

Ko Kyaw Kyaw is a single 30-year old man from Yangon, and has worked at the Mahar Chai fish markets for over ten years. He shares an apartment with five other Myanmar friends, and is able to send up to $250 every six months back to his parents. He prefers life in Bangkok, but would like to marry a Myanmar lady – one he also hopes to meet in Thailand.

Myanmar raised its minimum wage by 33 percent last year to 4800 Kyats ($3.29) per day. For an average worker working over 22 days per month, that’s just under $100. Figures from the Labour Force Survey (2017) are slightly higher, reporting an average salary of 170,000 Kyat ($110). Ko Kyaw Kyaw said it might be possible for him to earn up to $150 per month in Yangon, but that would involve leaving his motorcycle and work life in Bangkok.

With its relatively young and unskilled population, there are far more working-age people in Myanmar than in Thailand. The average age in Myanmar is just 27.5 years-old, whereas in Thailand it’s just shy of 40. With such a surplus in Myanmar, combined with the skills shortage, Thailand continues to be an attractive place for many Myanmar workers. The supply and demand in the labour market is what keeps people like Ko Kyaw Kyaw from returning home.

Risks and rewards

Aside from Mahar Chai, fisheries jobs exist in places throughout the south of Thailand. The work is open to both men and women, and is easy to obtain without any official documents. Workers entering Thailand without work permits are at risk of being caught by the Thai police, detained and sent back to Myanmar.

Some Myanmar workers even find themselves working more exotic jobs, such as jet-ski operators and deck hands for diving companies. Soe Aung and his friends work on the famous Patong beach, hiring out jet-skis to tourists. Some can earn commission for finding customers to eat at the nearby beach restaurants, which are also staffed by Myanmar waiters and chefs, but their basic salary for the jet-ski work remains 10,000 Baht.

Despite working in the sun and sea, beach and boat jobs also have their risks. Steve Antcliffe at the PADI dive school said that the company frequently hires Myanmar staff to work in the kitchen or as deck hands. Workers may be required to service boats traveling to other provinces, and that’s where problems with immigration can occur.

“We had two Burmese guys on the boat last month, but when we were stopped at the dock because they didn’t have the right papers. They had work permits, but because they were issued in Kao Lak the police took them off the boat,” he said. After being detained for two weeks, the two deck hands were then sent back to Myanmar.

Stories like these are common, and can also involve extortion, harassment and even longer terms of detention.

Last year the government opened a labour office in Ranong to assist Myanmar fisheries workers, to help deal with these kinds of problems. Several years ago Myanmar Live was established, distributing a regular Burmese-language magazine to inform migrant workers about Thai labour laws, office locations and even cultural events. Access to this kind of information is important, as labour conditions and opportunities for Myanmar migrants continue to improve – albeit slowly.

Across the country

Jobs in Bangkok and Phuket can attract the highest pay, but not everyone earns the same. In the border towns where there are typically less tourists, like Mae Sot or Ranong, hotel and factory jobs pay considerably less.

Naw Moo Na lives with her husband and daughter in Mae Sot, but was born in Kayin state across the border. Her salary of 3000 Baht ($100) per month is comparable to a labourer in Yangon, though her food and accommodation is taken care of by her employer. With her husband Naw Moo Na can save enough to send back to her family back in Pa-an.

When asked about changes in lifestyle over the past ten years, she said that the town itself had become much more modern. Large retailers like Robinsons and Makro didn’t exist a decade ago, and have opened up new opportunities for young Myanmar working in furniture, hardware and electronics stores.

Banks, fast food restaurants and the ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores are still off limits to Myanmar employees, but many retail workers in Mae Sot said that, with the added security of the visa system, they enjoyed crossing the border on their days off to watch Myanmar movies and visit family.

The Thai labour market

Labour rights groups and NGOs rightly push for better conditions for migrant workers, but in terms of pay rates debate seldom focuses on the labour market itself. Last year in Thailand the minimum wage was lifted to 330 Baht per day, which works out to 7,260 Baht per month ($237).

Like Myanmar a large percentage of Thailand’s workforce are employed in the agricultural sectors, where average salaries are likely to be around this benchmark. A more realistic minimum for sales and hospitality jobs in the city is around 10,000 Baht. For more professional roles, such as an information desk receptionist or bank teller in Bangkok, a Thai graduate might be expected to earn around 15,000-20,000 Baht ($490-654) per month.

These salaries aren’t particularly high compared to Myanmar employees in Thailand, but citizenship bestows more security – in terms of travel, health care and other benefits – on the local workforce. It’s worth bearing in mind the realities of the market, which set the price of labour for both local and migrant workers, which often aren’t as far apart as they may seem.

Source: Myanmar Times

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