Migrant Domestic Workers: From Burma to Thailand

July 2004

Publisher: Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, Thailand

Authors: Awatsaya Panam, Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw, Therese Caouette, Sureeporn Punpuing

This 250-page report was published in hard copy in July 2004 and placed on the Mahidol website in 2005 at www.ipsr.mahidol.ac.th/paper/PubNo286.pdf

However, as this version, at 37.7MB is rather heavy for most users, we have prepared two lighter versions which contain the full text, but miss out some graphical features:

Full text, pictures and graphics (3.23MB): http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs3/Domestic_workers-ocr.pdf

Full text, but without pictures and most graphics (1.2MB): http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs3/Domestic_workers-textonly.pdf

Executive Summary

“Millions of people from Burma1 have migrated into neighboring countries over the past

decade. Most have left their country in search of security and safety as a direct result of

internal conflict and militarization, severe economic hardship and minority persecution. This

exodus represents one of the largest migration flows in Southeast Asia. The minority people

of Burma make up the majority of those dislocated as a result of Burma's State Peace and

Development Council's (SPDC's) renewed commitment to eliminate ethnic militias and any

support for them in minority areas through forced labor and portering, as well as forced

relocation and arbitrary taxation, all of which leave the country's population, particularly the

minorities, extremely vulnerable.

Fearing persecution, the vast majority of those migrating from Burma find themselves

desperate to survive, obtaining work in underground and, often, illegal labor markets. The

majority of those fleeing Burma migrate to neighboring Thailand, where an estimated two

million people from Burma work in "3-D jobs" (dangerous, dirty and difficult), for pay well below

minimum wage. While clearly in need of assistance and protection, migrants from Burma have

a particularly difficult time exercising their rights in Thailand due to the Thai government's

policy of denying the majority of them refugee status. Living in perpetual fear of deportation,

migrants from Burma face abhorrent labor practices as a result of their illegal status, as well as

the lack of standardized working conditions and protection mechanisms.

It is estimated that well over one hundred thousand females from Burma are employed

as domestic workers in Thailand, though little information is available on the realities faced by

these women and girls. Although there is a growing awareness of their isolation and

vulnerability to labor exploitation and violence, there is little data available documenting their

realities. This results in the alienation of domestic workers and perpetuates the disregard for

their labor and basic rights. Consequently, neither migrants nor domestic workers (including

Thai citizens) have any official means of reporting or seeking redress to the grievances or

abuses they encounter in their jobs....”


Active steps must be taken at the international, national and local levels to recognize

and protect the basic human rights of migrant domestic workers in the workplace and in

society as a whole. The international community should put pressure on the SPDC and Thai

government to ratify and implement the 1990 UN International Convention on the Protection of

the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families in order to provide basic

human rights to those crossing borders. The International Labour Organization (ILO),

International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UN agencies should coordinate and work

together to recognize and strengthen the protection of foreign migrant domestic workers.

Regional bodies, such as ASEAN, should address issues related to migrant workers in all

labor sectors and take special notice of the complicated situation of migrants from Burma.

At the national level, Burma's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) should

address the causes of mass migration to Thailand (and elsewhere), including domestic

policies that result in extensive unemployment, inflation of basic commodities and forced

relocation. SPDC should discontinue projects that conscript forced labor and cease its

practices of fixed pricing, imposed compulsory crops, forced relocation and arbitrary taxation.

The SPDC should also recognize that in order to solve the fundamental problems in Burma, a

national reconciliation process must take place and political reforms must be promoted. If

people from Burma want to seek employment in neighboring countries, the SPDC should

permit them to do so legally, take responsibility to ensure their protection abroad and allow

them to return home without harassment. SPDC must also strive to incorporate and enforce

labor laws and rights for all people.

Similarly, the Thai government should acknowledge domestic work as labor protected

by Thai labor laws and ensure that domestic workers' rights are upheld, including the right to a

written contract that defines work expectations, guarantees a minimum wage, fixed working

hours with optional overtime, holidays and health protection and benefits. In honoring and

protecting domestic workers' rights, the Thai government should include efforts to educate

employers about the rights of domestic workers, establish channels for reporting complaints,

prosecute abusive employers and provide protection to those reporting abuses. In this last

respect, the Thai government should provide translators to facilitate reporting of complaints by

migrant workers as well as provide referrals to legal assistance and protection.

Health information, particularly on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, should also be

made available in the languages of migrants, and the Thai government should consider

facilitating radio and television programs on health issues for illiterate migrant workers.

The Thai government should also provide educational opportunities for migrant

workers, such as Thai language classes and other special adult education programs that could

be held on the weekends or evenings. Thai education law provides equal education

opportunities for all and efforts should be enhanced to see that migrants are included.

Of particular concern to the migrants interviewed for this study was the work permit

registration process, specifically the lack of public information and procedural clarity, the short

duration of the registration period, the costs associated with obtaining and renewing work

permits and the violation of privacy in obtaining medical exam results. In addition, employers

often ignored or abused the registration policy, often refusing to permit workers from

registering or withholding the original work permit, providing only a photocopy to the domestic

workers. The Thai government must ensure that migrant workers have the right to possession

of their original work permits and employers who refuse to relinquish the work permits should

be fined. Any future registration of migrant workers should be publicly disseminated in the

predominant languages of the migrant community and the period for registration should be

extended. Mechanisms should also be put in place to identify employers unwilling to comply

with Thai government labor policies and to provide protection for those reporting


In addition to remedying fraudulent actions by employers, both SPDC and the Thai

government must take action against Burmese and Thai authorities, particularly police officials

and personnel, who extort a range of arbitrary fees and fines from migrants moving across

borders. It is also alarming to find that the Burmese authorities have been confiscating

identification documents from its citizens that could render many stateless. SPDC must see to

it that these actions are stopped immediately and a process is established for reporting and

replacing abducted documents.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs)

play a critical role as intermediaries working closely with communicating migrants' concerns

and needs and advocating their rights to government officials and the international community.

They must continually strive to work with local community networks to make contact with

migrant domestic workers, raise awareness of their hidden and isolated realities, identify their

critical issues and recommend action strategies.

Finally, the inclusion of the migrant community in developing policies, practices and

responses should be considered to help establish appropriate interventions to reduce the abuse,

exploitation and trafficking of migrant domestic workers.

Migrant Domestic Workers xix