How many more of Myanmar’s overseas workers must die?

Photo: dany13/CC BY 2.0

By Dung Phan

About one year ago, Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don might have kissed her young child goodbye, wiped away tears and promised to send money back home. She left her family house in Tedim Township in Chin state, which has little infrastructure and remains extremely poor, as she might have done before. But this time, she never came back.

Like hundreds of thousands of Burmese across Myanmar, she made her way to Singapore to work as a maid. Last month, she called her brother, saying that she wanted to return home in August. However she was found dead in a ninth-floor in Bishan with multiple bruises on her body.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are more than 52 million domestic workers worldwide, but only 10% of them are covered by general labour legislation. In Myanmar, where 25.6% of the country lives under the national poverty line, the lure of the chance to make up to $450 a month has pulled million people out of their homes and scattered them across the world.

Domestic workers, most of whom are female, are some of the most likely to face abuse and exploitation in their working place, reports ILO. And Piang’s case is the fifth in the past month.

But these are just the stories we hear about; there are many unreported cases, in which women have been mentally abused, ill-treated or literally worked to death. Yet moving abroad to work as a maid is a calculated risk that millions of women such as Piang take every year.

A calculated risk

Andy Hall, a researcher on migration policies issues in Southeast Asia said migrant workers from Myanmar are among the most vulnerable in the region.

They are, “uneducated and desperate, and trapped in an environment where there is a high level of corruption and low level of regulation”, he says, adding that, “the capacity of the government to manage [the migration of its workers] is very low.”

In fact, Myanmar imposed a temporary ban on women working as maids in Singapore in September 2014 and reimposed the ban in May 2015 after allegations of abuse. Myanmar is the third-largest provider of maids to Singapore, sitting behind the Philippines and Indonesia.

To circumvent the ban, workers are paying a higher fee to facilitate bribes. And with a resulting debt that takes months to be paid off, they are turning themselves into slaves.  Migrant worker groups argue the ban will not address this issue and will only end up driving the domestic worker industry underground, exposing poor women to even greater risks of exploitation and slavery.

Jolovan Wham, executive director of Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (H.O.M.E.), said the number of Myanmar maids in Singapore increased 50% between 2013 and 2015, bringing the current total to 30,000. He believes this is evidence that the ban was not effective and, “not the solution.”

“They have little legal protection as there are no (labour) laws to protect housemaids against employers. But if they are accused of stealing money from their employer they can easily be prosecuted,” said Maung Maung Soe, a lawyer who has provided legal aid to abused workers.

No easy solutions

With few economic opportunities at home, and a freer movement of people under the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), it is likely more women will leave to get jobs abroad as domestic workers; doing so illegally. This sad fact is prompting calls for the newly appointed government of Aung San Suu Kyi to address the problem.

But it is never going to be easy for the authorities. The Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation (MOEAF) said many employment agencies are now coming from within the victim’s social circles.

“It is particularly difficult to track the trafficking of girls from Chin and Kayin state because their church is often involved,” said Win Tun, vice chairman of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation (MOEAF).

In 2015, MOEAF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with 12 employment agencies in Hong Kong with a view to ensuring employment standards are applied to Myanmar domestic workers. This could be a model for similar deals in other countries. “But the last government didn’t want to know anything about them,” adds Win Tun.

The new National League for Democracy (NLD)’s economic strategy, “contains no specific undertakings in relations to labour market reforms, concentrating as it does on macro-economic policy rather than micro-economic changes,” say analysts.

For ILO migrant labour expert Jackie Pollock, “It’s a gender issue that domestic work is not seen as work because it’s something that women do and housewives are not paid to do all the work that they do, she said. She added, “it’s still not considered work and still not protected by labour laws.”

How many more of Myanmar’s domestic workers must die before the NLD takes action? And what even is the best action to take? It’s too late for Piang but 30,000 others desperately need help.