No Sweat and the MAP Foundation: Supporting migrant workers
After working for No Sweat over the last ten years, being involved in demos outside high street shops of sweatshop abusing companies, organising meetings to discuss sweatshop labour issues, holding benefit gigs to raise funds for workers around the world struggling for better conditions and better lives, I have come to a country that is on the frontline of sweatshop production and home to many of the conditions that I’ve been campaigning against with No Sweat.
I have left the cold streets of London for the sun scorched streets of Chiang Mai in Thailand’s mountainous north. I’ve come to work with a small NGO (non-governmental organisation) called MAP Foundation that works to support the uncounted and unrecognised, the migrants who suffer stark exploitation in workplaces such as the factories that make the clothes for some of the biggest brands in the world and who get treated almost like non-humans for their efforts. I’ve come to find out what the reality is behind the stories that, as part of No Sweat, I have been presenting to the British public and the western world for the last decade or so. I’ve come to see the realities of life inside the sweatshop.
Of course Britain has its sweatshops too. The recent Primark scandals about immigrants in Manchester being paid well below minimum wage and having to work excessive hours to produce the cheap clothes of that multimillion profit store springs to mind, and No Sweat itself has been involved in exposing Topshops sweatshop labour practices, in London’s east end back in 2002. (See No Sweat vs the corporate giants) But the level of exploitation seen in developing countries is well beyond that heard of back home. In the developing world, the hours are long, the wages are low and the competition for jobs is fierce, as with anywhere, but more than that corruption is rife, support is lacking and the threats of expulsion, deportation and even death are very, very real.
The MAP Foundation, standing for Migrant Assistance Program, is a grassroots NGO that works with migrant worker communities living and working in Thailand, to empower them and give them the ability to collectively improve their working and living conditions. They are one of the many organisations across the world that works in solidarity with workers striving to stand up to the exploitation that No Sweat campaigns to expose.
MAP has a specific focus on migrant workers from Burma, many of whom are from the ethnic groups. Repression, violence and poverty in Burma that has existed of over half a century, has seen millions flee across the border to Thailand. Once here they face hostility among the local population, are prone to exploitation among the owners of industry who cultivate them for cheap labour, and lack the basic rights as individuals that Thai nationals and westerners take for granted. In this context Maps vision is of “a future where people from Burma have the right to stay securely within their home country as well as the right to migrate safely and where the human rights and freedoms of all migrants are fully respected and observed.”
The scope of work that MAP does is quite incredible and my jaw dropped on the first day of being here when the staff, made up largely of Burmese, Shan and Karen migrants explained to me the extent of what they do.
MAP is heavily involved with supporting migrant workers who have suffered abuses in the work place and wish to seek redress through informal collective bargaining (migrants cannot form their own unions in Thailand and often do not work in locations that have access to union representation), or take claims against employers through the labour courts. They also promote education of labour rights among migrants and campaign on their behalf for policies for greater protection of their rights. There are skill-sharing workshops, held for migrant communities to share their experiences as well as develop skills and strategize ways to tackle the challenges they face. Similar groups are run as women-only spaces for women to come together regularly and discuss issues of health, violence against women, rights and family planning.
There are campaigns set up to focus specifically on promoting occupational health and safety – a big issue for workers on construction sites where protective equipment is non-existent and work place injuries can be severe, with no access for migrants to compensation – and campaigns that focus on the rights of domestic workers, a grossly exploited group, combating the common mentality that domestic work does not constitute actual work. A Community Health and Empowerment Programme promotes the healthy physical, social, and emotional well-being of migrants by empowering them to make changes in both personal behaviour and societal attitudes on sex, relationships, HIV/AIDS and gender. They have even set up an emergency shelter for migrants who are pregnant, or awaiting medical treatment, or are in desperate need of safe accommodation.
MAP also runs a huge multimedia project that produces advocacy materials in migrant languages, such as Burmese, Shan, and Karen in order to effectively reach and empower the migrant community. Audio, video and print materials are used to address issues migrants face within their own cultural context. MAP resources are carried in numerous libraries, migrant resource centres, and are broadcasted over loudspeakers in migrant communities. They even run their own radio station! Providing cultural entertainment, dissemination of information and awareness-raising as well as providing migrants their own forum to express themselves.
It’s an impressive CV, and the ability to keep this mammoth amount of activity flowing is a testament to the dedication of the team that makes up MAPs family, and with an office in Chiang Mai, one in the border region of Mae Sot (where many of the garment factories and Special Economic Zones are located), and teams of volunteers doing outreach in workplaces across the regions in between, it’s a surprisingly big family.
Despite this it’s no bed of roses here in the land of smiles. In the month since arriving in Thailand I have heard first-hand accounts of migrants working over 16 hours a day for little more than 100baht (to put that in perspective, last night I spent 90 baht on two bottles of beer in the local shop). MAP staff have told me stories of a worker being sacked over a piece of textile she was sewing being dirty, despite it being dirty when it arrived; and of an entire workforce being sacked on the flimsiest grounds, then having the police called to eject them from the premises and finding themselves being deported back to Burma within 24 hours. I have also read in the MAP literature harrowing stories of migrants suffocating to death in food containers while being smuggled in to Thailand to work; of boatloads of migrants being set adrift at sea by Thai authorities; of migrants being shot dead when unable to pay police bribes. Some of these deaths involve children as young as three years old and all of them are undocumented with the perpetrators never being brought to justice. Clear evidence that the fight for the rights of migrant workers in Thailand is far from over.
So over the coming months I will be reporting back from Thailand, telling supporters of No Sweat about the work of MAP on the frontlines of the global anti-sweatshop movement. There are conferences planned, demonstrations, trips to visit workplaces and consultations with workers. I will do my best to bring you real life stories of the Burmese migrant workers and help MAP give a voice to the unheard.
Nyein chan yay