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


Gap yah?

Well done Jay for mixing it with the suffering migrants in Thailand. Good to draw attention to those people, who sound like the wretched of the earth according to Human Rights Watch. But things must be even worse next-door in Burma, as the migrants don't want to go back. Research on the MAPF website suggests over 90% of them prefer to stay in Thailand even when they lose their jobs.

The migrants' problems arise from the two-tier labour market caused by their second class legal status. Most aren’t involved in sweatshops - they are victims of two governments’ actions: the repressive military government and mismanaged economy in Burma/Myanmar and the apparently uncaring government (and people?) of Thailand. Those two should be the focus for attention.

So is Jay barking up the wrong tree? He writes about “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.”

On the ground things may be different. Most migrants in Chiang Mai don't work in textiles or clothing or even in factories, according to MAPF research. No more than a quarter of them work in any kind of factory, domestic work or as day labourers. Perhaps Jay will be giving us his reflections on the prospects for democracy and development in Burma, and ways to change attitudes to migrants in Thailand in this election year.

No gap yah...

Thanks for your comments Andrew, although am I picking up a slightly condescending tone?

Yes, there are not many factories in Chiang Mai as it is not an industrial city, it is much more tourist focused, but it is also the headquarters of the Map Foundation. However, Map does a lot of work in other areas of Thailand, particularly in Mae Sot, on the border, where there is a huge number of grament factories where people work in sweatshop conditions. A fact recognised by NGO's and government agencies the world over and I hope to visit Mae Sot at some time during my stay and meet the Burmese people who run the Map office there.

Further to this the conditions of many migrants in Thailand, including the agricultural, construction and domestic workers of Chiang Mai work very long hours, for low wages and often in very unsafe conditions (migrant construction workers have next to nothing the way of protective wear or safety equipment), and in this regard their labour is "sweated" out of them, in a similar way to those who work in the classic garment sweatshop outside the city.

This is the situation that organisations like Map, and many collective associations set up by migrants themselves (that I will write about in the future), work to change.

Furthermore, i think the title of your comment "gap yah?" might be suggested as an insult towards me, implying that I am a student on a gap year who has come here, as you put it, "mixing it with the suffering migrants of Thailand". As opposed to be a No Sweat activist who has move from the UK to another country where, it is widely acknowledged, sweatshop conditions are rife. You seem to be exhibiting some hostility toward this type of activity, which I have no idea of the reason for but I sense that you would prefer people to stay at home and theorise rather than travel, meet others and report back on the experiences of those people we meet.

I am sorry if my blog piece came across as showing migrants in Thailand as the poor suffering masses, after meeting migrants of different ethnicities I can report that I have met some very happy people and shared some good times with them, and I do not want to portray them as "the wretched of the earth" as you put it, but I would like to emphasise that migrants who travel to Thailand are treated as second class people, in many cases almost as non-people, by the employers and the government with the media doing their best to demonise them, in a similar way to what happens in Britain. There is a great deal of first hand reports of vicitimisation and abuse, in and out of the workplace, against migrants in Thailand.

Individual migrants have individual stories, some worse than others. I have met Burmese migrants who work in construction and send half of the £2 a day they earn back to their families in Burma and live communally to survive, but also I have met migrants who work as waiters in restaurants and have learned both English and Thai while here and thereby are in a better position than other migrant workers. That said the conditions even these workers live in on the wages they recieve are in stark contrast to those young students on their gap years that stay in Chiang Mai's many guesthouses. With large families crammed in to small apartments, which I saw when I was invited to a Burmese waiters home, live in apartment blocks that house hundreds of migrants in a level of comfort that does not compare to even the most basic of budget-hostels frequented by backpackers.

Andrew you are absolutely right when you say "things must be even worse next-door in Burma" but i am not in Burma, I am in Thailand. I am not here to focus specifically on the repressive situation in Burma I am here to focus on the migrants who live in Thailand. I am not looking specifically at the high politics of Burma and Thailand but at the grassroots organising of the workers. For the most part I will be leaving postulations and "reflections on the prospects for democracy and development in Burma" to others, maybe you have some wisdom to share in your own blog on this subject.