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Exploited Workers of Southeast Asia Unable to Unite

Exploited Workers of Southeast Asia Unable to Unite

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Tired, poor, huddled people seeking jobs in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, America and Europe have died on the high seas, suffocated in vehicles, toiled in sweatshops, and been expelled to countries where dictators lock them up.

Human traffickers eagerly profit from migrant workers' poverty, ignorance and desperation, including many unemployed men and women who beg to be smuggled abroad despite knowing the risks.

People pay huge fees and bribes to unscrupulous agents and officials to secure access to jobs, but often end up working in wretched conditions, cheated out of their meager wages or busted by authorities who squeeze them for cash or sex while imprisoning them before expelling them back home.

In an all-too-typical case, a group of frightened workers on April 20 climbed out of the window of a Bangkok garment factory where employers were allegedly exploiting up 60 people from Burma.

One of the workers, who filed a case with police, said they were locked in the factory from 8 a.m. to midnight, and paid less than $7 a month instead of the $200 salary previously agreed upon.

Two factory owners were arrested but denied wrongdoing.

They reportedly told investigators that the workers were locked up and not paid because each employee had to reimburse a $500 "recruitment fee" which enabled them to get the sweatshop jobs.

"I detained them inside the factory to prevent their escape," sweatshop owner Namee Sae Lee was quoted as saying.

In a separate case, police on April 20 arrested two Thais who allegedly charged workers about $10,000 each for jobs in Japan and the U.S., but disappeared after stealing the cash.

Some labor experts recommend a follow-the-money approach to help trafficked workers.

"When high, and often inflated, recruitment fees leave migrants heavily indebted, they are especially vulnerable to abuse," Dr. Chowdhury Abrar, international relations department chairman at Bangladesh's Dhaka University, told delegates during an April 19 to 21 Colombo Process meeting in Dhaka.

"Cracking down on excessive fees and unethical recruitment practices will be a key ingredient to any reform," Dr. Abrar said at the conference headlined: "Migration with Dignity".

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam attended the Colombo Process meeting as "labor-sending countries."

Bahrain, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates sent observers representing "countries of employment."

New York-based Human Rights Watch, which also sent representatives, said on April 19: "Some three million Asian men and women migrate each year, a large proportion working in domestic service, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture in other Asian countries and the Gulf states."

In recent weeks, trafficked workers became increasingly vulnerable because of geopolitical problems in the Middle East and North Africa.

When Arab uprisings erupted, thousands of Asian migrants were stranded, unable to get paid or immediately escape.

Here in Southeast Asia, governments have also failed to protect workers from abuse.

In 2009, Indonesia tried to stop its citizens migrating to Malaysia to work as servants, cleaners and other domestic helpers, amid hopes that a bureaucratic framework could be created to protect their rights.

Savvy traffickers and recruiters responded by offering those jobs in relatively prosperous Malaysia to eager, impoverished Cambodians instead.

Earlier this year, Thailand toughened its determination to deport illegal Burmese workers and replace them with documented migrants from Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Employees and human rights groups, however, predicted that plan would not work because the expense of flying workers from Bangladesh and Indonesia to Thailand would be less attractive than hiring Burmese illegals who easily cross the porous Thai-Burma border on their own.

Thailand uses about two million low-skilled workers from Burma, and many of them are undocumented.

Thailand's factories, construction sites, fishing industry and domestic sector -- which are often cited as the worst exploiters -- want more Burmese to be allowed to work in this rapidly modernizing country because of a labor shortage at the bottom rungs of the work force.

The most tragic cases of abuse in Southeast Asia's labor market often involve minority ethnic Rohingya, who are usually Sunni Muslims from Burma and Bangladesh.

Rohingya are said to be descendents from 7th century Arab sailors.

Today, most of them languish amid disease and squalor on both sides of the Burma-Bangladesh border, but up to two million allegedly work illegally in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Many Rohingya complain that Bangladesh makes it too difficult for them to obtain passports, so they rely on human traffickers when migrating for work.

Their plight begins when they willingly pay traffickers to put them on rickety boats for a perilous journey across the Bay of Bengal to reach Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia.

During the past few years, Thai authorities have been severely criticized for shoving boatloads of emaciated, sun burnt Rohingya back to sea, with little food and water, to prevent them seeking asylum in Thailand.

Rohingya who do land in foreign countries are often caged and eventually repatriated, or trapped in limbo as "stateless" migrants because they have no evidence of citizenship.

The international community often expresses sympathy and gives aid to people fleeing political chaos, but usually scorns so-called "economic refugees" as a lower in priority.

Many American and other international companies source their products and services in poorer countries where trafficked workers are exploited, but rely on sub-contractors' shell companies to arrange the grittiest and most dangerous jobs.

That enables the corporations' U.S. and foreign headquarters to deny direct responsibility or financial liability for any abuses.

"Educating intending migrant workers about labor laws and workplace rights in their own and foreign countries," would help solve trafficking, said the Solidarity Center, which was created in 1997 by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

"Creating standardized reporting forms for use in police stations" would also ensure trafficked workers are recognized and given legal and other aid when they are arrested or rescued, the Washington DC-based center said.

The United States' Trafficking Victims Protection Act forbids "involuntary servitude, slavery, debt bondage and forced labor," even if the worker "consented [or] participated in a crime as a direct result of being trafficked," according to a report titled, "What is Human Trafficking?" issued by the U.S. State Department which runs an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The problem of human trafficking often spills into America.

On April 19, the U.S. government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed lawsuits charging Global Horizons -- a labor contractor based in Beverly Hills, California -- of recruiting Thai workers and subjecting them to "physical violence," dilapidated housing, hunger, low salaries and other abuses on farms in Hawaii and Washington states.

Global Horizons reportedly hired the Thais in 2003 to 2007 under the U.S. government's H-2A guest worker scheme.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is

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