Friday, November 9, 2007

Made in Thailand (with some help)

Last week I plucked up the courage to pay a visit to a small sewing factory in town. I’d been directed to it by Lwin, a Burmese man who has spent the last 12 years quietly working to organize the 100,000 or so illegal Burmese laborers in Mae Sot.

In my interview with Lwin, I had asked him if he could arrange for me to visit a factory and meet some of Thailand’s 2 million illegal Burmese immigrant workers.

“There’s one near your guest house,” he told me. “Why don’t you go yourself?”

It was a challenge.

So one quiet day at noon, I did. I approached a man sitting outside the small, gated room that was chattering with sewing machines, and asked him in Thai if the owner was in. He looked uncomfortable, even more so when the young manager came out. They spoke to each other in Burmese. Then the driver turned to me and pointed to a rusted Chevy pickup.

“Get in,” he said.

I piled in with the driver and the manager jumped in the back. We rattled off along a road that led us to the outskirts of town. Half of me was still wondering if they were going to take my camera and wallet and dump me in a rice field, when the driver pulled into an unmarked drive.

A guard opened the gate, and we drove up to a long building humming with the zip of sewing machines.

There was a pile of sandals at the door. Inside were their owners – about a hundred of them, mostly young girls, and all Burmese working in Thailand illegally. Their fingers were moving at a fevered pace, flying under machines that stitched together baby skirts, frilly brown blouses and pinstriped designer shirts with labels that read ‘Christian Dior.’ The manager told me they were knockoffs.

I started taking photos. I learned the workers made $3.80 a day, for a nine-hour shift, less than half Thailand’s minimum wage for their class of labor. They worked six days a week. The clothes that they made would be trucked to Thailand and then shipped around the world to be sold for many multiples of their wages. The labels on the clothes said ‘Made in Thailand,’ but the truth was a lot more complex.

Aung Baing Soe, 23, was one of the few men in the room. He didn’t have much time to talk between hemming shirts.

“The work’s good,” he said. “We work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays we rest.”

Compared to what Aung Baing left behind in Burma, the work’s certainly better.

In Burma the majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Currently, 12 percent of the population has malaria. Only half of the country’s children finish primary school, and a third of them are malnourished.
It seems the Burmese that flee their homeland for the opportunity of Thailand are less interested in just wages and humane working conditions than they are about survival.

But working illegally in Thailand has its price. To go outside is to risk arrest, fines and deportation back to Burma, a country in which it is considered treachery to leave. Instead, most of the workers stay inside, locked into an economy where businessmen turn a profit on the relativity of suffering.

They work in the sweatshop, they eat in the sweatshop and they sleep in the sweatshop’s garage; 10 per tin-partitioned room, right next to the owner’s tinted windowed BMW sedan.

“Thai employers, they like the Burmese,” Lwin had told me in our interview. “Burmese workers are oppressed already and seldom demand their rights.”

There are about 400 factories operating in and around Mae Sot, tapping into a continual supply of cheap and quiet labor fleeing the dictatorship next door. They make everything from Maidenform bras to Marlboro jackets to Walt Disney apparel.

Many in Thailand realize the country’s economy needs Burmese labor. Some say this is why the Thai government offered to build the Friendship Bridge to Burma at its own expense.

I spoke to the Mae Sot police and the Ministry of Labor, and the number of illegal workers in town is no secret. But it’s a tenuous system, where timely bribes keep authorities’ heads turned until a publicized crackdown proves even timelier. The driver told me the owner of the sweatshop I visited paid 20,000 baht ($570) a month to keep the police from prying.

But even when workers are caught and sent back to Burma, they find a way to return.

“We cannot control it,” the local police captain told me. “If you send them away one day, tomorrow they’re back.” He denied any police involvement in the illegal labor economy.

“The police’s duty is to keep security,” he told me. “Their duty is not to check on workers.”

But raids are still common. The captain told me the police had sent 5,000 illegal workers back to Burma this year. Still, each year the number of Burmese crossing the border increases.

Millions have already fled the abuses and economic mismanagement of Burma ruling junta by crossing into Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand.

Before human rights or justice or peace, the majority of these evacuees are looking for the most basic thing they can no longer find in their homeland: a livelihood.
Click here to see a slideshow of images from the sweatshop:


Adam said...

Hey Jacob!

With a couple of old friends from Aber i've set up a website for International Relations students. It's only been up for a week, so we're still tweaking bits and pieces, but we're gradually getting content online. We're uploading interesting essays, reviews of courses, IR news, reading lists, features, articles...etc. It's all going to be completely free and anyone can upload content - we're hoping that a bit of community will build up around it - a repository of lots of interesting information and also an opportunity to debate... etc. As an end point we're hoping to establish an online academic journal, where articles are openly peer-reviewed by site users before being moved onto a 'published' page when a consensus has been established as to which ones are most interesting.

Anyway, I've been following your (super-interesting) blog - and we were wondering if we could put a link to it on the main page? Also, if you'd like to write any comment pieces and load them onto the site then feel free!

Let me know - if you want to check out the site it's

Cheers, Adam

Janet said...

Thank you, Jacob for your reporting;good story,wonderful eye-opening photos. I think I will always have to look at my clothes differently. When I iron a cuff, I will picture the young woman sewing over the pleats on the bottom of a sleeve...over and over and over and over she (or someone like her in a sweatshop) sewed to make the cuff that I will iron.

Karen Coates said...

It's good to see your work from this side of the world. Your findings in the sewing factory nearly mirror those I found last year at a shrimp-peeling operation, As long as Burma is what it is, these conditions will not change in Thailand.
How long will you be in/near Thailand? Jerry and I expect to return from India toward the end of December. Perhaps our paths will cross.